Ultra Thin Solar Modules to Make 2008 Debut in Germany

A new generation of ultra thin solar modules that can be integrated into the facades of buildings at low cost is to be produced in Germany next year. The German company Schueco has joined up with E.ON, the country’s biggest energy company, to invest 100 million euros [$US 136 million] in the research and production of this new ultra thin solar technology that cuts down on the need for silicon, the costly raw material for solar cells.

Production is due to start at a site in Saxony-Anhalt in the second half of 2008.

“Our researchers are currently working on developing more efficient solar modules of more than six percent and also on ways of producing modules at a far lower cost in order to make them more attractive for builders and architects,” Thomas Lauritzen, spokesman for Schüeco, told RenewableEnergyAccess.com.

The high absorption level of amorphous silicon will allow solar cells to be produced that are a few micrometers in thickness—much thinner than conventional mono and polycrystalline silicon solar cells. Glass panels of varying sizes—up to 5.7 square meters and with an output of 460 W/h—will give builders the flexibility to cover the maximum surface of any façade.

“Theoretically, this technology could supply the entire electricity needs of a building, depending on its size, location and the amount of sun it gets. We believe that this new technology could be integrated into a huge number of existing office buildings and also in new buildings because investors increasingly recognize the importance of carbon neutral buildings,” said Lauritzen.

The U.S. company Applied Materials will supply the nanomanufacturing technology for the production, which will be carried out by a newly founded umbrella company called Malibu.

Lauritzen added that he sees a huge export market for the new modules in southern Europe.

Following in the footsteps of Germany—France, Italy, Greece and Spain have recently introduced legislation giving financial incentives to producers of solar electricity. Also, individual cities in Europe are enacting renewable energy legislation: the city of Barcelona in Spain recently issued a law requiring every new public building to have solar technology installed.

“The countries in southern Europe have recognized the huge potential for solar energy that they have and are introducing a favourable legal and financial framework. That’s why we expect the demand to grow there, but we are also interested in other markets, including the U.S.,” said Lauritzen.

Since 1997, the photovoltaic (PV) industry in Germany has reduced the unit cost for solar electricity power plants by 50 percent and the costs are expected to fall further and to be 85 percent below the 1990 cost by 2020.

Government legislation that guarantees solar electricity suppliers a certain minimum price has also boosted the use of PV electricity: 2000 GW/h was installed in 2006 compared to just 76 GW/h in 2001.

Of Germany’s electricity, 1 percent is produced today by solar power plants, but this is estimated to rise to 25 percent by 2050, saving the country an estimated 100 million tons of carbon emissions.

About 220,000 new solar power plants were installed in 2006, mostly on roofs, taking the total number of solar electricity and thermal power plants installed in Germany to 1.3 million.

To meet the growing demand, more than one billion euros is being invested this year in solar factories according to the industry association, the German Solar Industry (Bundesverband Solarwirtschaft).

Between 2007 and 2008, 15 new solar production facilities will be built, mainly in eastern Germany. Exports of the PV branch are also booming: exports were valued at 1 billion euros in 2006 and are estimated to rise to 11 billion euros by 2020, the industry association says.

Furthermore, the number of employees has increased tenfold since 1999 in the PV sector alone, rising to 35,000 people in 2006; with the number expected to reach 100,000 by 2020. Altogether, the solar thermal and PV industry employed 54,000 people in Germany in 2006.

Jane Burgermeister is a freelance science writer based in Austria.

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