Three options for “good enough” solar module frontsheets

Solar manufacturers eager to boost margins and expand share are looking for any cost-cutting angles, and are turning their attention toward nonactive materials such as frontsheets, encapsulants, and backsheets, according to a Lux Research report.

June 15, 2011 – Solar manufacturers eager to boost margins and expand share are looking for any cost-cutting angles, and are turning their attention toward nonactive materials such as frontsheets, encapsulants, and backsheets, according to a Lux Research report.

Lux Research surveyed emerging nonactive material technologies for flat-plate PV modules to gauge readiness for adoption, in this case alternative frontsheet technologies. Breakeven cost was calculated by looking at impact on module efficiency vs. rolled, patterned low-iron glass, the incumbent for crystalline Si modules.

The figure below shows that while some fluoropolymer materials can boost module efficiency (e.g. FEP by nearly 3%), most are prohibitively expensive. Recalculating the difference between breakeven cost and current material cost, fluoropolymers such as ETFE also cost about 20% more than their breakeven value ($14/m2).

(Source: Lux Research)

However, there are some options for module makers seeking cost relief in the frontsheet area. Despite slightly lower transmittance, low-iron float glass is the most viable drop-in replacement for rolled glass, offering a $9/m 2 price advantage as rolled glass prices climb, notes Lux Research analyst Jason Eckstein. Suppliers have thus begun offering float glass of equal quality, and some x-Si suppliers (e.g. Solarworld) are incorporating the cheaper alternative in their modules.

For fluoropolymers there are two materials providing “dramatic cost/performance” vs. glass — transparent PVDF and Tedlar each have in excess of $1/m 2 of pricing wiggle room to stay competitive, although their long-term field performance is still a question, Eckstein notes.

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