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Thoughts from Intersolar 2012

By Guest Blogger Charles Waitman

I spent a day at Intersolar North America in San Francisco, considered by some to be North America’s premier exhibition and conference for the solar industry.  My career, to date has been in the oil industry.  This was my second Intersolar conference.  These are my observations.

PV dominated the conference.

Mark Pinto of Applied Materials gave an excellent presentation.  He forecasts that innovation will support continued growth in the rate of PV installation.  Dr. Pinto forecasts a 20 to 20% growth rate in annual solar installations, with annual installations reaching 250 GW/yr  and installed capacity reaching perhaps 800 to 900 GW by 2020.  He described total installed cost approaching $4/w today.  As an interesting perspective the installed cost of 250 GW, at $4/w, is about one third of worldwide expenditures for oil.  Other interesting perspectives, at the level of 800 to 900 GW, PV solar would represent 15% of worldwide generating capacity, 5 or 6% of annual generation, and a little less than 1% of energy use.   The US Energy Information Administration’s 2011 forecast (International Energy Outlook 2011) differs sharply from Dr. Pinto’s.  EIA forecasts a 16% annual growth rate for solar capacity (16% first derivative vs 20 to 30% second derivative for those of you who love calculus) from 2008 to 2020 with a 2020 capacity of 86 GW.  Pinto sees panel costs dropping below $1/watt.  Balance of system costs are coming down as well, but the progress here is slow.

I talked briefly with a representative of the EV Group about their non-reflective coatings.  The marketing strategy has been increased efficiency.  From my perspective the most significant benefit of these coatings might be expedited permitting since glare is a common concern.

I listened to several presentations at the PV Energy World Stage.  California Assembly member Skinner and Arthur O’Donnell of the CPUC reported on the California a legislative mandate to introduce storage with as yet unspecified physical requirements in 2015 and 2020.  The remaining presentations caused my head to spin thinking about load and generation profiles, distributed vs central generation, smart grid requirement – or perhaps things will just balance out.  However, the point that registered clearly in my mind is that $4/w for the installation isn’t the cost of PV in a very large scale and mature setting.  Storage, transmission, resources for load balancing, etc. will be big cost centers when we reach the point that PV power from the roof top impacts more than the firing rate of a peaking turbine.

What I didn’t see was discussion of end of life issues for panels and batteries.  While these issues are later (as in sooner or later), nickel, cadmium, lithium, magnesium, cobalt, tellurium, indium, selenium shouldn’t accumulate in stockpiles and permiate into the ground and water.  Everything has an end of life.  Disposal (or hopefully recycle) isn’t exciting, it is often expensive, it is hard to enforce.  PV isn’t the first promise of an almost infinite supply of clean energy.   Real thinking and robust policy regarding end of life issues should accompany the technological development that is proceeding at such a furious pace.

I am almost in the PV camp (a big deal for an oil industry guy).  PV is bigger than I thought, growth is faster than I thought (EIA is also a few years behind), and it will be a major part (as in Coal or Oil or Gas not domestic hot water) of the energy balance.  Balancing cost (including changes to the grid, and storage) and environmental impact (end of life) of PV against shale gas (abundant and likely cheap but faces groundwater issues) and combined cycle generation (pretty cheap and pretty clean but still a large source of greenhouse gas) will be no small challenge.

 

Chuck Waitman has extensive experience, within the oil industry, with synthetic fuels, refining, hydrogen production, cogeneration, energy procurement, energy contracts, and energy conservation.  For the last 5 years he has worked on implementation of California AB-32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act.  He presently consults on issues related to energy and greenhouse gas management.

 

Will Crystalline Solar Kill Thin Film? A Conversation with Applied Material’s Solar Head Charlie Gay

By Neal Dikeman

I had a chance to chat today with Dr. Charlie Gay, the President of Applied Material’s solar division.  You may recall, we broke the story in the blogosphere 5 years ago about Applied’s entry into solar, which was anchored with a highly touted and very aggressive strategy for turnkey large format amorphous silicon and tandem cell plants called SunFab.

Charlie reminded me that when they began 5 years ago, they did so along two major thrusts:  The acquisition of Applied Films in June 2006 getting an inline coating system for deposition of silicon nitride passivation layers on crystalline and in parallel an internal project to adapt their large flat panel display manufacturing technology for photovoltaics.

They still like the large module format, for a simple reason, cost in the field for large scale solar farms is heavily about getting area costs down relative to power output.  I was excited for another simple reason, when major capital equipment developers get involved, manufacturing maturity is not far behind, it forces everyone to rethink scale in different ways.

After a huge initial splash outselling everyone’s expectations in that SunFab concept, many industry analysts later kind of wrote them off as flash in the pan when they were reported having problems as implementations came in slower and smaller and harder than expected on their SunFab lines a couple of years ago, and a saw a major restructuring in 2009. But they’ve had success with that product anyways, EVERYONE saw a major restructuring in 2009, and more importantly the original vision of leading solar into mass manufacturing is still going strong, now across a range of products and technologies in thin film and crystalline manufacturing equipment.  Let’s put it this way, in their annual report they call themselves the largest equipment manufacturer to the solar sector, they have $1.5 Billion in annual revenues in the Energy & Environmental division, which is heavily PV, and there are like 120 mentions of the word solar in their annual report, almost once per page.

So what I really wanted to talk to Charlie about was the future of PV manufacturing. He frames the future by drawing a mirrored parallel between photovoltaics and integrated circuit manufacturing, beyond just semiconductors:

  • In IC, dozens to hundreds of device architectures exist, but basically one material, silicon.
  • In PV, there is essentially one architecture: the diode, but dozens to hundreds of material choices.

But silicon has been the mainstay material of PV for a number of reasons.  So we got into one of my favorite topics, the manufacturing improvement potential in crystalline silicon.

His version of Moore’s law for solar runs like this:  the thickness of the solar cell decreases by half every 10 years.  Today it’s 180 microns thick.  The practical possibility exists to get down to about 40 microns, with some performance improvement by making it thinner, but we can’t go much below 40 without being too thin to absorb enough light.  This fits with other conversations I’ve had suggesting that over the past couple of years most of the major crystalline solar manufacturers were working on paths to take an order of magnitude out of cell thickness.

If this comes to fruition, crystalline can literally wipe the floor with the existing thin film technologies.  Basically think sub $1 per watt modules with the performance of high grade crystalline modules today.  And as cost per watt equalizes, that higher efficiency starts to really tell, as since Balance of Systems costs have fallen at 10-12% per doubling of installed fleet, compared to module costs falling at 18-20%, in a world where BOS increasingly matters, the old saw about lower area cost per unit of power installed starts to actually bite for once.  Think ultra thin high performance low cost large format x-Si modules with fancy anti reflective coatings and snazzy high grade modules with on module inverters or DC optimizers mounted on highly automated, low cost durable trackers.  Think solar farms approaching effective relative capacity factors of 2.5-3 mm kW Hours per year per MW on 25 year systems at $2-3 per Watt installed.  Possibly the only thing on the planet that could match shale gas.

In fact, the entire thesis of thin film as a business and venture capital prospect has been built on the premise that crystalline material costs were just too high to get to grid parity. I’ve got scads of early thin film business plans touting that.  That thesis is under extreme pressure these days. I’d submit that if the industry 7 years ago had really understood how much improvement could be had, we’d have saved billions in potentially stranded thin film development.

Charlie says there are about a dozen different paths for enabling 40 micron cells.  The most interesting approach to him is an epitaxial growth process on reusable silicon templates.  A process which grows a thin layer of silicon on top of a reusable layer of silicon, using perhaps one mm thick silicon templates, etching the surface, and directly depositing silicon from trichlorosilane gas.  The idea would be to rack templates into a module array, grow the cells in an oven to your 40 micron level, then glue the glass module to the back side, and then separate it off to form a “ready to go assemble” module.  The challenge is basically oven and materials handling designs that get it cost efficient in high volume.

In essence, all you’d be doing is integrating a silicon ingot growth process directly into a module. Instead of growing ingots, cutting thick wafers, forming cells, then building modules from them, you grow cells racked into their own module personally instead of growing ingots first.

Hella cool.  A process like that means using fairly manageable capital equipment and materials handling technology development in known device and module technologies we could literally rip the ever living guts out of crystalline manufacturing costs.  And there are 11 more paths to play with???

The way he thinks about it, on a broader perspective more people are working in photovoltaic solar R&D today, by his estimate some 70,000 researchers and $3 billion per year, than in all of the prior PV history.   And that means whereas perhaps five main innovations over 35 years drove almost all of crystalline PV manufacturing costs (screen printing, glass tedlar modules, adapting steel from tires for cutting wafers, silicon nitride processes, and fast metrology tools), in today’s world, Charlie thinks we see 5 equivalent innovations in PV manufacturing technology every 2 years.

So I asked him to comment on whether there were parallel cost-down opportunities for thin films or whether it is an also ran waiting to happen.  He thinks there are.  He mentioned organics.  I pushed back hard, as organics have been written off by almost everyone for never seeing yield or performance, so where does he see the opportunity?  He responded that he picked organics to keep me from narrowing the materials field prematurely to just A-Si, CdTe, CIGS, and GaAS.  Silicon just like carbon can surprise us, e.g. bucky balls, carbon nanotubes, and just because early materials had stability and process issues, doesn’t mean we’ve exhausted the opportunities.

He says what he wants us to recall is that we are currently operating in PV manufacturing today with the materials that were on the radar in the energy crisis from 1974-1980.  That is changing in the lab and universities these days.  And given time the results will surprise us.

He draws a parallel between photography and photovoltaics, both invented in 1839, both rely on sunlight acting on materials. In photography, people started off putting films on glass, then putting films on mylar, and running things continuously.  Implying that in solar, we’re still on glass c. 1890.

He said to think about the original Ovonics/Unisolar vision in thinking about how you get to high speed continuous processing with thin film (think paper manufacturing, where done roll to roll it’s far more consistent than one-offs can be done).  If that is still our ultimate thin film paradigm (got to love the chance to use the word “paradigm”), the stars are still in front of us with what thin film COULD do.  And while roll to roll has had significant materials technology and process control challenges for the current class of materials, let’s go back to the mirror parallel to integrated circuits, in photovoltaics, one main device, scads of material options.  Just a matter of R&D hours and time.

He markedly did NOT suppose that the current state of thin film devices could beat 40 micron crystalline silicon by themselves.  It’s worth considering that we may look back and find that thin film, CdTe and First Solar were the stepping stones to 40 micron crystalline, not the other way around.  Maybe my next question to Charlie is whether he and I should set up Neal and Charlie’s 40 Micron Solar Company of America yet. 😉

 

Cleantech Blog "Power 10" Ranking Vol. I

I spend most of my day meeting and talking to companies in the cleantech sector. And those of you who know me know I have opinions on who is doing it right, and who is doing it wrong. So I thought it was about time to initiate the Cleantech Blog Power 10 Ranking of cleantech companies doing it right. Eligibility for inclusion in the ranking requires meeting a 6 point test. Suggestions for inclusions in future volumes are welcome. The 6 point test:

1. The company is energy or environmental technology related
2. I like their products
3. The market needs them
4. The company is smart about building their business
5. I’d like to own the company if I could (for the right price, of course!)
6. It is not already one of mine (my apologies to my friends Zenergy Power)

I have included cleantech companies big and small. Volume I surprisingly ended up with a lot more solar companies than I would have guessed, and no biofuels. Perhaps I really am a closet solar fanatic.

  1. Sharp Electronics – In solar, still the biggest, and still growing. Enough said.
  2. Det Norske Veritas – DNV is a massive 150 year old risk management firm. Their auditors underpin roughly half of the carbon markets. In carbon, audit and verification is everything. I could not leave them off.
  3. IBM (NYSE:IBM) – What IBM is doing in smart grid is very exciting. They are part of a large proportion of the smart grid implementations that are in process, and a huge proponent of open standards. Smart grid is to electricity what fiber is to telecom. It underpins everything.
  4. Applied Materials (NYSE:AMAT) – The future of photovoltaics lies in scaling thin film manufacturing process. Who better to do this than the dean of semiconductor capital equipment. I broke the story of Applied’s entry to solar in the blogosphere in 2006, and if anything underestimated how hard they were pushing. The whisper mill has been whirring that the installations of their plants are not on track. Not only do I have faith they will get there, I think it is critical to the industry that they do.
  5. Fuel Tech (NASDAQ:FTEK) – I wrote about them in 2007. The CEO John Norris is a long time friend and an excellent operator. Cleaning up coal is a huge business that needs to be done, and they do it well.
  6. Fat Spaniel – Distributed power, solar included, is a ticking time bomb without independent monitoring. Fat Spaniel does it the best.
  7. Smart Fuel Cells (XETRA:F3C.DE) – I wrote about them recently. I helped create a fuel cell business in 2002. This is the first fuel cell company in 5 years that has intrigued me. They actually ship product with solid gross margins. That is a start.
  8. First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR) – Lowest cost producer in the photovoltaic business. Guaranteed to make the list until dethroned.
  9. Global Solar – I have been following this company for a long time. CIGS is very hard and has broken (or is currently breaking) hundreds of millions or billions of dollars worth of wannabes. This management team, led by Mike Gering, respects how hard it is. And since they have actually been running a pilot plant shipping product for 3 years, so we need to take note when they say they have cracked the manufacturing scale nut.
  10. Schott – Long a major player in crystalline silicon photovoltaics, amorphous silicon photovoltaics and concentrated solar thermal, where they are one of the top manufacturers of solar thermal receivers. That balance is unique, and exciting.

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks, Chairman of Cleantech.org, and a blogger for CNET’s Greentech blog.