San Francisco, Calif. — For Intersolar North America, I set out to conduct video interviews with companies in different segments of the solar industry. The idea is to give a snap shot of the technology development and market demand for manufacturers and service providers.
I spoke with DuPont Photovoltaics Solutions’ Maria Boulden, global sales manager, and Monica Tisack, global business development manager, to get the latest on the polymer films that guard the solar cells against moisture and other environmental damage. These encapsulants and barrier films are unsung heroes. They aren’t sexy subjects, but they play an important role for ensuring that the cells will last for the 20 or 25 years promised by the cell and module makers. Competition in the material world has mostly been waged among large companies such as DuPont, 3M, Sumitomo, Dow Corning and Wacker Chemie.
While silicon solar panels continue to dominate the market, the materials developers have been working on protective films that target cells made with materials other than silicon. With the emergence of copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) solar panels, some of these companies have stepped up the development of barrier films designed specifically to protect the especially moisture-sensitive CIGS cells.
Given CIGS technology seems to finally get ready for prime time, I caught up with Global Solar’s Jean-Noel Poirier, senior vice president of business development. Global Solar is one of a handful of CIGS companies that recently launched thin films built on flexible substrates. Global Solar is gunning mostly for the commercial rooftop space, particularly rooftops that can’t bear a lot of weight. That pits the company against Solyndra, a fellow CIGS company, and a number of other companies that are making laminated modules (without the glass cover) using silicon cells.
Global Solar also expects to see its cells embedded in roofing materials, from shingles to membranes. Dow Chemical already plans to use Global Solar’s cells for its shingles and launch them later this year. During a conference call to discuss its second-quarter earnings this week, Dow executives said the company is building a factory to make shingles now and plans to increase the production capacity to 220 megawatts of shingles annually by 2015.
“Humidity protection is key in making CIGS practical for the rooftop. The key to that is the moisture barrier. This has been a constraint in the last few years, to find the right product to truly protect the CIGS. And today the problem is solved,” Poirier said.
Another emerging technology is the microinverter. A microinverter is linked to a panel and converts the direct current from the panel to alternating current for feeding the grid. It’s a departure from a conventional setup where a central inverter would the job for, say, 10 panels at a time. Microinverter makers say their hardware can better monitor and control the power output of each panel and prevents the weakest performing panels from dragging down the power output of the rest. Critics say the hassles and costs of replacing microinverters during the lifetime of a solar array outweigh the benefits.
I spoke with Louis Lalonde, vice president of worldwide marketing and product management at Enecsys, a U.K. company that recently entered the North American market and raised $41 million. Lalonde hit on several key benefits and challenges of developing and marketing microinverters, and he gave some solid figures on the prices of microinverters versus a central inverter for a same-size array.
Enecsys and other microinverter startups are creating a new market while larger inverter companies wait to see when they should participate. Already, Power-One has launched a microinverter.
The success of a solar power project doesn’t depend only on good equipment designs. A developer and his banker will have to figure out how to engineer and build a project that is capital efficient and meets if not exceeds the performance expectation.
That expectation comes in the form of a detailed report that uses a myriad of data, such as weather, terrains, solar irradiance, government subsidies and local electric rates. So I included Meteocontrol in my lineup to get a sense of what project developers want in performance reports. Meteocontrol also provides performance monitoring services after a project is built.
Ben Compton, the chief operating officer of Meteocontrol’s North American operations, dropped by to discuss the company’s role and its target market segments, which actually don’t include utility-scale projects. Why, you ask? Check out the video and you’ll know!