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When will solar technology OUTSHINE the dinosaur? Sooner than we think!

Solar technology VERSES fossil fuel. Why dinosaurs are still cheaper.

Cheaper power technologies, and technologies that are easier to make, are constantly being sought after by solar manufacturers.  For all the reductions in cost, solar power is still more expensive than fossil fuel.

Why This is Important

The number of solar panel installations is growing, but because of the excessive supply in relation to meager demand solar manufacturing is struggling. This market has slowed down innovation, but not stopped it. After the IEEE Photovoltaics Specialists Conference in Tampa, Florida, industry insiders are still excited about future prospects.

Conventional crystalline silicon has been the new surprising technology. Just a couple years ago these panels cost $4 per watt, and the professor at University of New South Wales, Martin Green, stated they would never fall below $1 per watt. “Now it’s all the way down to 50 cents a watt, and it may reach as low as 36 cents,” he says.

The goal for the US Department of Energy has been $1 per watt for all installed systems by 2020. Martin Green expects the market to reach this sooner than that, which would reduce the cost of solar power per kilowatt hour below the expected rates for natural gas power at six cents. (The overall cost of solar power would be above this, when considering the cost attributed to utilities to make up for the intermittent problem, though the magnitude of this discrepancy will be in relation to the amount of solar power on the grid, among other aspects).

The silicon solar panel industry has been looking in all places for an effective way to cut costs and to increase the output of power for solar panels, and this has led to consistent reductions in cost. Even tedious aspects of it, like the pastes which are used as screen prints for features of the solar panel, have been driven down in cost. In the 1990s Martin Green’s lab constructed a solar cell that broke efficiency records for silicon solar cells, and this record still stands. He took advantage of costly lithography techniques to construct wires which collected current from the cell of the panel to accomplish this. Improvements in technology have allowed these wires to become finer. The current research points to wire lines as fine as 30 micrometers, similar to the width that Green constructed for the record breaking cells, but which are produced at a much lower cost than the techniques of lithography that he used.
These techniques, and other recent developments, will make it more possible, affordable, and practical to recreate his record breaking solar cell in production lines and maximize efficiency. Companies are developing techniques of manufacturing for new front metal contacts, and though the development and implementation of this design for back electrical design is more challenging it is expected to be developed next.

Furthermore, the National Renewable Energy laboratory have constructed solar cells which are flexible from a new type of glass developed by Corning, Willow Glass, which are ultra-thin and can be rolled up. This type of cell is the only large scale competition to the current champion, silicon, thin film cadmium telluride. These flexible cells bring down the cost of installation for solar cells, making solar power overall more affordable and inexpensive.

A former student and colleague of Martin green, Jianhua Xhao, who is one of the founders of the solar panel developer China Sunergy, has announced design and building plans for a pilot manufacturing line which will construct a double-sided solar cell absorbing light from either direction. Though this idea isn’t new, this allows panels maximal energy access and thus maximum efficiency. The sunlight will for a certain part of the day come between multiple rows of solar panels in a power plant, which will then reflect onto the rear end of the panels and subsequently be harvested for higher output. This technique is especially effective when solar panels are built on very reflective surfaces, like sand. A double-sided solar panel can be expected to generate 10-20% more electricity and output over a year of usage, increasing power generation from 340 watts for a one sided panel to 400.

Vertical mounting is ideal for these panels, similar to a fence, so that one side will collect the morning sunlight and the other will collect sunlight later in the day. This reduces the requirement of land for the panels, and they could function as barriers for noise if homes or buildings are along highways. They are also ideal for areas with a high amount of dust, since for normal solar panels dust storms will decrease output, but these vertical panels accumulate little dust and make the systems more effective and economical in areas such as the Middle East.

For the long term Green is counting on silicon, hoping to take advantage of the fall in production costs and rise in effectiveness that the technology has seen recently. Green has aims of increasing the effectiveness and output of silicon solar panels by pairing these panels with other semiconductors which can specialize in capturing and converting parts of the solar spectrum that silicon is inefficient with.  A single semiconductor added to a system could increase the efficiency of a system as much as 15-20 percent, and another semiconductor could increase the efficiency as high as 50 percent. This would reduce the required numbers of panels for an installation. The key is to construct connections in the semiconductors, which is difficult considering the silicon atom arrangement in crystalline silicon.


Article written by Jennifer Coleman of Sun Source Solar Energy Brokers, providing solar brokering, brokerage, and solar energy consulting services in Santa Rosa, Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Solano and San Francisco Counties.  For more information, please visit www.SunSourceSolarBroker.com.

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