Like it or not, solar is still the crown jewel in cleantech. Whither goes solar, there goes cleantech. So I got to thinking about the next decade in solar, and what will determine which companies achieve primacy. I think there are three races in solar technology to watch these days. Call it the Solar Triple Crown. The three races that matter.
Yield! Yield! Yield! – The race to yield performance at volume in thin film. In thin film, getting the best performing device has never been the issue. Getting a repeatable process, at scale, on the second and third plant, with solid performance, but most importantly yield, yield, and yield has always been the issue. We’ll call this our Kentucky Derby of solar, and First Solar has just about won it. Whether anyone else ever catches them may even be considered irrevelant to the solar industry as a whole now, the race has been run.
Thin X Marks the Spot – The crystalline race to thin. I was quoted a while back saying that the future of solar in the US was all about thin film, since we’d missed the boat on building a solar manufacturing base in the first wave, and everything else was about fighting low cost manufacturing in China, where we were unlikely to win. I’ve got a caveat to that now. A friend of mine in the solar test equipment business told me about a year ago that he knew of a large number of crystalline companies whose research programs were targeting taking two-thirds to an order of magnitude out of the thickness of their technology, in an effort to stay relevant in an increasingly thin film ruled world. Then at the Cleantech Open Gala I emceed last week, the people’s choice winner was announcing the same thing, a path to higher performance at one quarter thickness. In crystalline, thickness generally equals cost. And the materials cost difference between the devices was the core value propostion thin film always pitched over crystalline. So I’ll caveat my earlier comments that the US solar future is all about thin film. Maybe it’s about the race to thin in crystalline. If they can, the thin film (or First Solar if you prefer) Triple Crown coronation might not be cake walk, Kentucky Derby win or not. We’ll call this the Solar Preakness. It’s a little longer, a little tougher, and it’s still being run.
Tracker, tracker burning bright – The race to the perfect moving part. But thin film versus crystalline is no longer the only game in town. Now it’s about trackers, too. I never liked trackers. I always felt one big advantage of solar as a long lived, low operating cost technology was its lack of moving parts. Using trackers of course, would eliminate that. But I’ve started changing my thinking. As the winners of the first two races emerge, trackers become the next big thing. The technology that makes all others better. The next largest area of potential performance and $/kwh performance improvement. Serious power for serious people. The long race, that’s less flashy, and more a grind than the first two. The Belmont of Solar. And in trackers, it’s going to be about simplicity, yes, cost, yes, but just like the Belmont, mainly about longevity. 11 horses have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978. All fell short to the grind of the Belmont.
According to Wikipedia, as of 2008 3,889 horses had entered one of the three races. 274 horses have won a race. 50 have won two legs. Only 11 have won the Triple Crown. I think in the Solar Triple Crown the Kentucky Derby’s been run and won. Maybe still a fight, but the we’re largely on to the next race now. The Preakness is just beginning, and no clear winner has yet emerged. And Belmont hasn’t really started. But it will.
And that’s good news for all of us in the industry.