Experts discuss 2010 outlook at Thin Film Solar Summit

Industry experts weighed in on the outlook for thin-film photovoltaics at last week’s second annual Thin-Film Solar Summit in San Francisco — but deciding what is needed to compete with crystalline silicon PV and the outlook for 2010 depended in part on which segment was being represented.

by Debra Vogler, senior technical editor, Photovoltaics World

December 7. 2009 – Industry weighed in on the outlook for thin-film photovoltaics (PV) at the second annual Thin Film Solar Summit US (San Francisco, CA, Dec. 1-2). The details of what the industry needs to do to compete with crystalline silicon (c-Si) PV and the outlook for 2010 depended, in part, on which segment each expert was involved.

Subhendu Guha, chairman of United Solar Ovonic, noted that the thin-film industry does not need another revolution to reach grid parity. However, government can assist in three main areas: market pull (e.g., FITs, and loan guarantees), barrier removal (net metering and a uniform code), and providing a push to technology (e.g., focus on the cost of electricity). “We don’t need another revolution to reach grid parity,” noted Guha; “just continue to follow what we’ve been doing.”

c-Si is a very strong competitor, so the thin-film sector has to use every advantage it has to bring electricity costs down to compete, asserted Christian Koitzsch, managing director at Ersol Thin Film (purchased by Bosch Solar). In Germany, where the FIT has been revised and where green field installations in 2009 have gone back to c-Si due to falling prices, competition is particularly challenging, he told attendees. However, one advantage of thin-film technology vs. c-Si is that energy yield predictions do not typically take into account the Stäler-Wronski effect that occurs with a-Si; additionally, such predictions do not account for regions with a strong blue-shift in the light spectrum, explained Koitzsch. He presented a year’s worth of data collected by a green field installation in Germany (a country with a strong blue-shift in its spectrum) showing that a-Si consistently outperformed monocrystalline, mc-Si, and even micromorph. “This is the kind of data one needs to convince investors that silicon thin film, or thin-film as a whole, is the right way to go,” he said.

Joe Armstrong, CTO at Ascent Solar, told attendees that the market for thin-film solar will be challenging for CIGS to penetrate. The technology must demonstrate comparable reliability and cost to c-Si and it must compete with established thin-film products and module costs. CIGS must also achieve high capacity and cost reductions to be competitive (i.e., on efficiency, yield, and throughput. Specifically, flexible CIGS capacity must increase significantly, he said: 10-20MW capacity is not sufficient to compete in cost-sensitive markets he observed. Furthermore, capex reduction from economies-of-scale will not necessarily come from equipment standardization. There are a lot of different recipes for making CIGS materials, explained Armstrong, and “it’s a challenge to the equipment manufacturers as to how to address that,” he said. While it would be nice to have turn-key systems, he expects that CIGS manufacturing equipment will continue to be customized to some extent.

The challenge for the PV industry going forward, argued Brian Murphy, founder of Fulcrum Technologies, is excess capacity, which now is almost equal to demand. He presented data indicating that at the end of 2009 there will be ~20GW (PV) installed worldwide, approximately one-third of which were installed in 2008. In 2009, about one-fourth of all PV will be installed, and next year, approximately one-fourth to one-third of the total global installed base (at that time) will be installed.

Market predictions are very difficult because the industry is in a nascent stage and has not stabilized, Murphy observed. His recipe for survival includes cost control (e.g., operations, module efficiency, and bill of materials), risk management (product reliability, bankability, and warrantability), and scalability (low capex, raw materials, and the factory/operations template). “This is a cleansing opportunity for the industry, for the true strong companies to wise up, form partnerships, survive, and move forward to take this industry to where we all know it can be — a large, global, multinational industry that can truly have companies making profits,” he said.

In closing his talk, Murphy suggested a number of key areas of focus for the thin-film PV sector (including equipment suppliers, raw materials suppliers, and module manufacturers) for 2010 and beyond: consolidation (as has occurred in the wind industry); relentless pursuit of decreasing costs, including those for balance of system (BOS); standardization within and across technologies; and “cradle-to-cradle” environmental responsibility, i.e., making the PV industry double-green.

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