A US-based solar manufacturer has offered a glimmer of light to the much-maligned solar market. Solar Junction of San Jose, CA, which manufactures III-V element, compound semiconductor, multi-junction solar cells for concentrated photovoltaic (CPV), surpassed its own world record this week for the energy conversion efficiency of a commercial-ready module. It raised the bar to 44 percent and was verified by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
This company leveraged its adjustable-spectrum lattice-matched (A-SLAM) materials technology to break its own world record and remain a leader in this branch of solar cell technology, as it strives to drive CPV costs down in order to become more competitive in the marketplace. Recent technology wins have led Solar Junction to construct a 6”-wafer fabrication facility, partially funded by a US Department of Energy (DOE) contract awarded in April for SUNPATH (Scaling Up Nascent PV At Home). The Silicon Valley-based project is part of the DOEʼs SunShot Program, which aims to increase PV manufacturing in the US through investments in technologies that are sustainable with competitive cost and high performance. SunShot investments are designed to help achieve $1/Watt by 2020, which has been a benchmark price point in the industry for years.
Concentrated photovoltaic technology uses lenses or curved mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy by a factor of several hundred onto photovoltaic cells, fabricated from compound semiconductors, as opposed to conventional silicon-based panels. The price-per-watt of the cell itself is the lowest compared to rival technologies due to the enormous magnification factor, leading to a conversion efficiency of around 40 percent, which is 20 percent better than typical cells manufactured from crystalline silicon or thin-film semiconductor material.
However, the overall benefits of this technology are suppressed due to complexities such as the expensive optics and control systems utilized at the larger, module level. Recent data from the US DOE’s Energy Information Administration state that the average price of a CPV module was $1.32/W in 2011, compared to $1.63/W for crystalline silicon (comprising ~85% of the market) and $1.28/W for thin-film systems. Crystalline silicon and thin-film solar cell prices dropped significantly since 2011; so CPV is even less competitive today. Plus, it is not conducive to rooftop commercial or residential systems.
Regardless, CPV is slowly gaining traction in the market amid the downturn in the industry due to its competitive advantages for large utility-scale power in sun-intensive climates. Another CPV provider, Soitec, headquartered in France, announced this week that it has completed the delivery of 5 MW of its Concentrix CPV systems to seven solar plants in Italy, bringing the company’s grand total of installations to 10 MW globally. Moreover, Soitec and Schneider Electric are also installing pilot projects in Morocco, equivalent to 10 MW, to meet the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy’s goal for 2 GW of solar power by 2020. Saudi Arabia has a 16 GW target, with projects at least 1 MW in size.
These positive signs for the CPV market help offset the closure of an Amonix manufacturing facility in Nevada, and a startup, GreenVolts, essentially discontinuing its operation after a critical financial investor reneged its support of the company. Nonetheless, a recent IMS Research forecast predicts sharp growth for CPV market in the coming years. It stated that the CPV market will double in 2012 and that installations will grow rapidly over the next five years to reach almost 1.2 GW by 2016. As oversupply for conventional crystalline silicon solar modules from China wanes due to US-China trade balance, and prices stabilize as a result, there is a good possibility this target will be met.