Analyst: US SunShot’s Goals Unacheivable Even With New Solar Technologies

Solar PV technologies based on crystalline silicon are the current leaders in today’s solar market, but it’s becoming clear they won’t achieve the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative’s goals of $1 per Watt installed for utility-scale projects by 2020. What’s needed is more development work in pushing today’s silicon PV into new directions, plus alternative cell architectures and technologies, according to a new analysis by Lux Research.

To get to those 2020 goals, the DOE’s SunShot program has been supporting companies and organizations all along the solar value chain, from materials to installation processes, to find ways to squeeze out costs. But so far the industry is still several dollars above the DOE’s marks, and Lux analyst Fatima Toor suggests they’ll still be 13 percent higher even in 2030 given the pace and direction of solar technology improvements being explored today.

Half that $1/W SunShot mark by 2020 relies on improvements in the upstream manufacturing side, meaning $0.50/W prices for modules, but that’s simply not achievable based on today’s traditional cell designs if manufacturers want sustainable margins, Toor said. She noted some of the manufacturers have particularly aggressive roadmaps to get to $0.50/W, and in some cases well below it, but those processes are complicated and it’s unclear at what point those will turn into working commercializable products.

What the industry needs to do first is focus on advancements to current silicon PV technologies, Toor argues. For the near-term she points to three examples: bifacial modules with emitters on the front and back, copper metallization to replace silver (think Silevo and TetraSun), and epitaxial wafer processing. A little further down the road look for more further-reaching innovations such as tandem cell architectures and non-silicon materials such as III-V, thin-film copper-indium-gallium-arsenide (CIGS), and organic and dye-sensitized solar cell technologies, she said.

Credit: Lux Research

Given the ever-tightening wallets among venture capital funding, companies will increasingly need to link up with research institutions and consortia to speed PV innovation. “Most of the module manufacturers don’t have a lot of R&D funds to do research,” Toor said, so they partner with research institutions as well as local universities. It’s “contracting out their R&D activity, but still having a handle on their innovation pipeline.” She highlights five groups in particular who, based on her analysis of 900+ corporate partnerships in solar, seem to be especially prolific in partnering with industry on the materials and equipment side: IMEC, ECN, Georgia Tech, the U. of Delaware, and Arizona State U.

The need to emphasize technology development for future solar PV competitiveness echoes recent findings from NREL and MIT, which argue that the scale and innovation that pushed China into its current position of solar PV manufacturing dominance could be replicated in other regions, notably the U.S. Toor disagrees: “I think China will continue to dominate in terms of solar PV manufacturing,” she said. It’s possible other regions will emerge with some level of lower-cost solar PV manufacturing, such as South America and some low-cost Asian countries. “However, the U.S. really needs to invest more in R&D,” not just some of the further-away technologies like organic PV “but also in traditional technologies like crystalline silicon and some thin-films like CIGS,” she said.

And China’s not standing still on its own c-Si dominance, either. Since 2009 China has held the lead in solar IP generation, and the gap is widening, Toor pointed out. “China takes their solar industry very seriously,” she reiterated, pointing to decade-long programs that are pushing solar energy and funding research not just in silicon but also in thin film.

Number of patent applications by country. Credit: Lux Research

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Jim is Contributing Editor for, covering the solar and wind beats. He previously was associate editor for Solid State Technology and Photovoltaics World, and has covered semiconductor manufacturing and related industries, renewable energy and industrial lasers since 2003. His work has earned both internal awards and an Azbee Award from the American Society of Business Press Editors. Jim has 17 years of experience in producing websites and e-Newsletters in various technology markets.

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