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A Rush to Innovate Silicon Solar Technology

It wasn't so long ago when some solar company executives – particularly those in the thin film business – dismissed the idea that innovation could still thrive in the world of crystalline silicon technology. The silicon technology was getting cheaper and factories were getting larger, and its dominance seemed unshakable, at least in the short-term. Why would anyone invest in new materials or production processes?

Turns out, a lot more can be done to chip away at the manufacturing cost. This is especially true when silicon technology companies are eager to set their products apart in a market that’s got way too many same-same solar panels.

“There is a real sense now that the crystalline silicon process flow, which has been fairly mature and undifferentiated, is headed for a change,” said Shyam Mehta, senior analyst at GTM Research, during a webinar on the photovoltaic market outlook on Tuesday.

Mehta rattled off some of the technologies that are being developed or employed: select emitters, cast monocrystalline ingot, backside passivation. Silicon wafers will become thinner than the 200-micron variety that is commonly used today. All these technologies are meant to reduce material costs and improve the amount of sunlight that solar cells can convert to electricity.

It’s not as if solar companies all of a sudden woke up and decided they needed to take risks and experiment. Some of these new materials and factory equipment have been under development for some years and are only now good enough to make their debut in the market. Others were technologies that weren’t developed as stand-alone products. Instead, their makers had intended to keep them in-house for making solar cells and panels for sale. Startups that have modified their business plans along the way included Twin Creeks Technologies (thin wafers), 1366 Technologies (low-cost wafers) and Calisolar (purified metallurgical silicon; the company changed its name to Silicor Materials).

Innovalight also morphed from a solar cell maker into silicon ink developer. It signed up a bunch of manufacturers that used the ink to improve their cells’ efficiencies.  DuPont bought Innovalight last year but didn’t’ disclose the purchase price.

The troubling imbalance of supply and demand that has plagued the PV business over the past year and a half is prompting PV companies to accelerate new technology development. Or they are trying. Solar cell and panel makers who in the past used standardized equipment are all looking for ways to boost the efficiencies of their products, whether through in-house R&D development or technology acquisitions. Suntech Power made a big deal about a process to create a hybrid wafer that produces more efficient cells. Canadian Solar boasts of a new technology that can collect more light, and its CEO is weighing whether to build a 700 MW factory to produce solar cells with the new technology.

With all these new technologies coming onto the market, we can expect cheaper and cheaper solar panels for many more years to come, right? The cost of making solar panels fell to around $0.96 per watt in 2011 for vertically-integrated factories in China, home to the heaviest concentration of silicon solar panel makers, GTM said. The cost will likely fall to $0.64 per watt before this year is over and reach $0.47 per watt in 2015. 

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