Published on September 15th, 2020 | by Tina Casey0
What’s The Secret Sauce Behind New “Forever” Solar Panels?
September 15th, 2020 by Tina Casey
File this one under W for Whoa if true. An Oregon-based startup called Violet Power is looking to build the first integrated PV factory in the US in modern history, meaning it will produce both solar components and finished solar panels instead of relying on overseas components. To gild the Made-in-America lily, the company has dropped word that its innovative new solar technology will be backed by a 50-year warranty. That’s pretty impressive, considering that the industry standard is about 25-30 years.
Who Broke The News About 50-Year Solar Panels?
For that matter, most other household appliances and HVAC systems can barely chug along past 15 or 20 years without a major repair or replacement, so the industry standard warranty for solar panels is already pretty impressive. Just saying.
To be clear, when solar panels and lifespan are mentioned in the same breath, usually the context is the optimal lifespan. Solar panels can produce clean kilowatts for years after their optimal lifespan expires, only just not as efficiently.
So who knows, maybe Violet Power’s solar panels can pump out the green electrons pretty well for 75 or 100 years. Or maybe the 50-year warranty takes into account the loss of efficiency. CleanTechnica is reaching out to the company to get more details.
In the meantime, let’s take a look back at the news from more than two months ago, on July 9, when staff reporter Charlie Featherstone of The Columbia Basin Herald appears to be the first to cover the new solar factory story (follow link to support local journalism).
The short version is that Violet Power aims to fulfill nearly half of the nation’s current demand for solar panels once its factory is up and running. For those of you keeping score at home, that target is to start producing solar panels next year and get to 5 gigawatts annually within five years.
To move things along, Violet Power is in talks with a Norwegian company called REC Solar, which owns a facility in the town of Moses Lake that produces silicon gas through its REC Silicon subsidiary. The idea would be to park the proposed Violet Power factory right across the street from the REC site, providing it with easy access to a key raw material at a competitive price.
There is a major trade war attached to the REC part of the story (follow that link!), but the upshot is that REC Silicon was stuck with a whopping big tax bill and other penalties attributed to the trade war. All that may (or may not) need to be sorted out before any deal with Violet Power is nailed down.
Wait, What About The Long Lasting Angle?
The Columbia Basin Herald didn’t say anything about a 50-year warranty back on July 9, or for that matter anything else in particular about Violet Power’s new solar technology. That all began bubbling up to the surface on September 8, when news seeped out that Charlie Gay, the former chief of the Energy Department’s Solar Energy Technologies Office, was signed on to Violet Power as CEO. Our friends over at PV Tech covered the news and took note of Gay’s 50-year warranty pledge.
To make things even a little more interesting, last week SP Global reported that Violet Power has selected the US startup SunFlex Solar to partner in the manufacturing venture, noting that SunFlex has cut costs by deploying aluminum instead of the silver and copper typically used for solar panels that fall into the category of IBC.
IBC stands for interdigitated back-contact, which sounds fancy but simply means that the electrical contacts for the solar cells are threaded behind the solar panel. That boosts efficiency by reducing shade on the front of the panel, though the tradeoff is higher costs (more on that in a sec).
The Aluminum Secret Behind Low Cost Solar Panels
Interesting! SunFlex Solar crossed the Energy Department’s radar a couple of years ago when it nailed down a slot in the agency’s “American-Made Solar Prize” competition.
“This team is replacing the high-cost copper backsheets on standard back-contacted silicon solar cells with aluminum, which costs less,” enthused the Energy Department. “They will use a high-speed laser to weld the aluminum backsheet to the silicon wafer. The team has secured a path to manufacture this technology domestically to produce high-efficiency, cost-competitive solar modules.”
SunFlex got its start as a research project at Arizona State University. As explained by the company’s co-founder, Kate Fisher, the IBC approach can boost the output of solar panels by 6%,
Six percent may not sound like much to write home about, but it is when you consider it in the context of so-named “soft” costs for solar power. Solar panels and other hardware only account for about half the cost of a typical rooftop solar array. The other half covers everything else, including administration, marketing, permitting, inspection, shipping, and labor.
With more efficiency you can get the same output from smaller solar panels, and smaller solar panels can bring down soft costs by helping to cut installation time and other associated expenses.
The problem is that conventional IBC panels are based on silver and copper and are therefore pricey, so any cuts you gain on the soft cost side are lost on the hardware side.
No problem any more, says Fisher.
“Our actual innovation is how the aluminum is integrated into the panel. In particular, we emboss the aluminum foil to form busbars that make electrical contact with the back of IBC solar cells. Then we weld these busbars to the cells with a laser, resulting in a robust interconnection,” she explained to the ASU publication ASU Now all the way back in May.
As of last May, SunFlex was still awaiting performance verification from two Energy Department laboratories, and casting about for a solar manufacturer to partner up with. Going by the reporting of SP Global, both of those tasks appear to be completed, or nearly so.
Forever Solar Panels, Made In The USA, Less Expensively
Reports are also floating around that Violet Power will be using leveraging the new ZEBRA IBC solar cell technology, which was developed by the Solar Energy Research Center Konstanz, in Germany. If you have any ideas how that fits into the picture, drop us a note in the comment thread. Meanwhile, CleanTechnica will see about getting some clarification from Violet Power.
No mention of renewable energy would be complete without noting that the US has been facing not one but two terrifying climate-linked crises in recent weeks, with fires raging all along the West coast — including Violet Power’s home state of Oregon — and a series of hurricanes battering the Gulf coast, on top of a horribly mismanaged* public health emergency that has already killed almost 200,000 people in the US their lives for no particular reason.
Despite all this, the stage is set for a new burst of US leadership on renewable energy and climate action, if only the nation can survive until Wednesday, January 20, 2021.
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