Hot Housing Under a Desert Sun

Tangible evidence of Masdar PV’s commitment to become a major player in the solar photovoltaic sector came precisely at the turn of the decade with commissioning of a thin-film installation on the roof of its production halls in Ichtershausen, Germany.

Connected to the German grid on 31 December, 2009, the 260 kW installation, comprising a total of 2900 modules, has secured feed-in payments of €0.4037/kWh for the next 20 years under the national EEG law. The installation is anticipated to generate approximately 223 MWh and gross earnings of some €90,000 [US$122,700] annually.

While the installation at Ichtershausen could be considered a commercial success, and even a major step forward in Masdar’s photovoltaic strategy, it is by no means the extent of its $2 billion solar thin-film PV investment programme, first outlined in mid-2008.

This massive financial commitment, one of the largest ever made in the thin-film PV sector, will fund a three-phase PV manufacturing and expansion strategy which forms a part of the Masdar Initiative’s drive to become a world leader in alternative energy.

Phase one involves an investment of $600 million to fund the development of two new manufacturing facilities. In August, 2008, Masdar PV broke ground on the first site at Ichtershausen, near Efurt. The €150 million [US$230 million] installation became operational in October 2009, with delivery of the first solar modules to concrete manufacturer Beton Fertigteilbau Erfurt (BFE) for the construction of a 1 MWp open space solar park. With a targeted annual capacity of 65 MW, the facility occupies a 15 hectare site and produces 5.7 m² modules. Full capacity of the current production line should come in the third quarter of 2010.

The modules, currently the world’s largest, are produced using SunFab equipment from Applied Materials, adapted and optimised in cooperation with research partners and leading manufacturers in the sector, the company says.

Thin-Film ‘Key’ to Making PV Competitive With Fossil

Along with Applied, among other Masdar PV partners are the Helmhotz-Zantrum Berlin for Materials and Energie (HZB) — headed by Masdar PV research and development partner, Professor Dr. Bernd Rech, Manz Automation AG — for the development of new types of equipment for the production of thin-film solar modules, and FH Nordhausen Polytechnic, which specializes in systems engineering in the renewable energy field.

Research and development capabilities appear to form a fundamental part of the Masdar strategy to become one of the top three global suppliers of thin-film modules in the coming years. Announcing the strategic alliance agreement with HZB in November 2008, Masdar said the four-year programme was designed to substantially boost the efficiency of large-area PV modules.

Under the umbrella of the thin-film PV Competence Centre Berlin (PVcomB), itself a joint initiative of HZB and the Technical University of Berlin, the move secured Masdar access to a world-class PV research institute as well as a major technical university.

Dr Rainer Gegenwart, CEO of Masdar PV, commented: ‘Our success depends on using the most cost-efficient, innovative technology. This partnership with PVcomB offers Masdar PV a crucial differentiator by combining their world-class ability to boost efficiencies and our team’s experience in thin-film PV production. This combination will provide us a major cost and technology advantage over competitors.’

In addition, Masdar PV will also be using the roof installation at Ichtershausen as a test facility in the future. ‘We want to also make use of the installation in order to test the energy yield of our solar modules in conjunction with various inverters’, explains Joachim Nell, COO/CMO of Masdar PV. Use is therefore being made of inverter products from both Xantrex Technology and SMA Solar Technology.

Masdar PV’s thin-film based tandem-junction amorphous silicon (a-Si/a-Si) PV modules are designed for use in open-space solar parks, or in large roof PV applications. The company says that manufacturing of large-surface area substrates, compared with competitors of say 1.4 m², significantly reduces total system costs. Among other things, fewer cables and connectors are needed, for example, and the company claims the modules offer particularly high yields under diffuse lighting and high ambient temperatures, possessing the best cost-to-performance ratio currently on the market.

Furthermore, Masdar argues, the use of thin-film technology — which requires less than 1% of the semiconductor material found in crystalline PV modules — is key to rapidly driving down the cost of PV and making it fully-competitive with fossil fuels. Indeed, the company believes that the technology for grid-parity solar power already exists in most sunny markets, given the matter of achieving the right scale to hit lower costs. Masdar PV says it intends to combine proven PV technology, advanced manufacturing capability, and R&D expertise, together with scale in order to deliver these lower costs.

Part of its strategy to achieve this involved choosing Germany’s ‘solar valley’ in Thurungia as the site for its first plant. Masdar says it did so because it is currently the centre of the global PV industry with access to a highly-qualified specialist workforce in the area of photovoltaics, excellent links with universities, institutes and technical colleges, and forward-looking regional government policies to promote the location of new, technology-led companies into the area.

Crucially, the German installation will act as a reference plant for technology and knowledge transfer to the larger Abu Dhabi plant that will be executed by a joint German-Abu Dhabi team.

A Multi-Country Strategy for Global Leadership

This second, sister facility is currently under development in Abu Dhabi and is expected to begin initial production by the second quarter of 2010. It is anticipated to have a yearly capacity of 130 MW, giving a combined annual total of 195 MW from the two sites. This output is already committed to major PV system installers in Europe and for Masdar’s own energy generation needs, the company says.

This approach represents a significant step in Masdar’s objective to transform Abu Dhabi into a developer and exporter of technology, rather than an importer. With a goal of reaching 1 GW of annual production by 2014 through capacity expansions and other new plants, this multi-country operation will allow Masdar PV to become a global leader in thin-film PV, it believes.

Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, CEO of Masdar, said: ‘Thin-film PV is a key part of our build-deploy-develop strategy to actively build a strong position in alternative energy. This [$2 billion investment] marks a major milestone for Masdar and Abu Dhabi. It will not only establish Masdar as a major global PV player, but will be the first high-tech semiconductor nano-manufacturing facility of its kind in the entire region’, he added.

Commenting on the implications of the Masdar PV development, Dr. Winfried Hoffmann, president of the European Photovoltaic Industry Association, observed: ‘The entry of such powerful energy leaders into solar is very exciting, and could change the dynamics of the entire industry’, adding that the move not only added capacity, but also opened new future big markets in and around the Middle East with good insolation and the capital to deploy PV systems.

Like many others in the sector, Masdar PV believes that thin-film technology is set to play an important role in the global solar PV industry of the future. It cites studies undertaken by the bank Sarasin, which found that in 2008 the market share of the thin-film technologies rose to 1100 MW of generated power, or 16% of the market.

According to the company, total thin-film production was forecast to reach some 2100 MW in 2009, while the total worldwide PV production is expected to be 10.5 GW. The company concludes that thin-film’s market share will therefore have risen to 20%, despite the financial crisis, observing that the entire PV industry is becoming more global and less susceptible to the changing conditions in key markets.

It is therefore realistic, they say, to expect stable growth over the coming years, peaking in 2020 in an annual newly-installed PV capacity of 155 GW. This would result — in the period between 2012 and 2020 — in an average annual growth of some 30%. Non-European markets are expected to develop even more rapidly towards 2020, since they have regions with greater amounts of sunshine that want to catch up with solar energy development, Masdar PV added.

The U.S. has been singled out by Masdar PV as a market with particularly strong potential. ‘There are currently excellent opportunities in the U.S., as the country will grow rapidly to become one of the largest solar markets. Particularly for our thin-film modules there are over-proportional growth opportunities. We want to use them’, said Dr Gegenwart, noting that Masdar PV is considering the option of building an additional manufacturing facility in North America. ‘We are going to make this decision based on the requirements of the market — presumably at the end of the next year [2010], when the perspectives for the global solar industry have considerably brightened up again’, he added.

Grounding in R&D

That a strong theme of research and development should run at the core of Masdar PV is no surprise. Masdar PV GmbH is a 100% subsidiary of the Masdar Initiative, Abu Dhabi’s multi-billion dollar investment platform for the development and commercialization of renewable, alternative and sustainable energy technologies. In January 2008, Abu Dhabi announced it will invest $15 billion in Masdar, the largest single government commitment of its kind. It is driven by the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (ADFEC), wholly-owned by the government-owned Mubadala Development Company.

The Masdar Initiative is divided into five business units and among others Masdar PV is joined by the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST) and the Masdar Research Network, both established to implement high-quality training and the networking of researchers, two cornerstones of the Masdar Initiative.

MIST is currently being established with the assistance of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Meanwhile, the Masdar Research Network links researchers worldwide in a range of disciplines, forming a nucleus of renewable energy development. Institutes that have joined the network so far include Imperial College London (UK); RWTH Aachen University (Germany); University of Waterloo (Canada); Tokyo Institute of Technology (Japan); Columbia University (USA) and DLR, the German Aerospace Centre, which is heavily involved in energy research.

Masdar has also partnered with research organisation Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft to develop a Sustainable Cities Research Centre in Masdar City, the organization’s first Middle Eastern research hub. The research centre will focus on critical technologies for sustainable cities, including solar energy through the Fraunhofer Institutes for Solar Energy Systems (ISE). The agreement also includes collaborations with MIST and other institutions to undertake joint research. Commenting, Prof. Hans-Jörg Bullinger, president of Fraunhofer Gesellschaft said: ‘Masdar City will be a magnet for the world’s top minds in renewable energy and a hub of innovation. As a living laboratory, it will connect research and application every day across the full spectrum of clean technologies.’

More recently, in December 2009, South Korea’s Ministry of Knowledge Economy signed a memorandum of understanding with Masdar on collaboration in renewable energy between MIST and Korean research and academic institutions, as well as prospects for establishing of a Korean clean tech cluster within Masdar City. Already home of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), this flagship development will be developed over six phases and is due to be completed by 2016. The first building, part of the MIST campus, is set to open in the second quarter of 2010 and the first commercial buildings in 2011, but the nearby Abu Dhabi city is offering temporary facilities. Masdar City has also attracted considerable commercial interest. GE has, for example, become an anchor partner in the Masdar Initiative and plans to house its first ‘Ecomagination Centre’ focused on clean tech development, at the city.

Masdar PV aims to establish itself as one of the leading providers of thin-film PV modules worldwide and the foundations for this have been laid at Ichtershausen. But the seeds of its long term success may lie in its commitment to developing a new ‘solar valley’ in the deserts of Arabia. It shows that it is possible to nurture not just a renewables market in a previously barren land, but a renewables industry too.

David Appleyard is associate editor of Renewable Energy World. e-mail: rew@pennwell.com

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