ABB’s New Solar Star

Over the weekend, ABB (NYSE: ABB) announced the $1 billion acquisition of Power-One (NASDAQ: PWER), which makes a wide spectrum of power conversion electronics equipment.

Notably, Power-One is a major player in the market for inverters, which convert DC power into AC power.  In turn, inverters are important for synchronizing DC-based technologies such as batteries, fuel cells and photovoltaics (PV) with the AC electricity grid.

While there may be other reasons underlying the acquisition, ABB singled out Power-One’s inverter lines for the PV market.  At first blush, this might seem surprising, because as most observers of the cleantech sector know too well, the PV sector has been brutalized in recent years.

Surely, the PV industry has been beset by intense competition among module suppliers, stemming from global excess manufacturing capacity that has accumulated over the past few years.  This is bad news for module manufacturers, who have struggled to attain or maintain profitability.  However, it’s very good news for customers, as PV system prices have plummeted in recent years.  In turn, this has dramatically expanded the market for which PV installations are now economically competitive to grid-based power, and PV market growth rates are on a hockey-stick upward trend.

Accordingly, the demand for ancillary equipment required for grid-connected PV systems — most prominently, inverters — has also grown dramatically.  As a result, the inverter manufacturers such as Power-One have been able to take advantage of the rising tide.  ABB clearly wants to jump on it.

So, ABB is playing the Levi Strauss strategy:  in the 1850’s, Strauss decided he wanted to participate in the California gold rush boom — but rather than becoming a miner himself, he decided to supply the miners with their required supplies.  In 1873, Strauss invented blue-jeans for the miners to wear as they flocked to the hills and — lo — Levi’s was born.  Thereafter, Levi Strauss made the fortune that the miners were actually seeking themselves, and for the most part never attained.

ABB thus seems to see that it can make good money from the booming PV market without buying into the challenge of being a supplier of PV modules.  It’s strong validation of the long-term fundamental appeal of PV as a major force in the energy sector for decades to come.

Clear Signs of Innovation in Glass

Glass has been made for thousands of years, and innovators have always been tinkering to improve the basic product.  Over the years, these improvements have mainly been in terms of color, strength, weight, quality.  The cleantech imperative of the past few decades is now pushing glass innovations on two more dimensions, energy efficiency and power generation.

Regarding energy efficiency, the big issue with windows is energy transfer.  Of course, glass is more thermally conductive than most other building materials, so windows let out more heat in the winter and let in more heat in the summer than the rest of the building.  As such, improving the thermal-insulation of windows has long been pursued, such as through storm windows.

However, another angle on the efficiency topic is via the use of electrochromics, which uses chemistry to change the tint of the glass based on the amount of sunlight.  You’ve no doubt seen these on sunglasses:  the glasses turn darker in bright sunlight, and lighten up inside.  Well, these are now increasingly being applied to windows, so as to reduce the amount of energy (heat) transmitted through the glass.  SAGE Electrochromics of Minnesota, recently bought by the French giant Saint-Gobain (Paris: SGO), is arguably the leader in this field. 

With respect to power generation, a number of inventors have been dabbling with photovoltaics integrated into glass.  Most of this work has been to incorporate solar collecting material into the entire pane, but this recent article discusses some efforts at TU Delft in the Netherlands to use the glass as a lens to focus the light onto solar cells at the periphery of the window.

The moral of this story is:  even something invisible like glass is subject to advancement as part of the cleantech movement.


Dark Days for the Solar Industry

With the Solyndra debacle and other bankruptcies (e.g., Evergreen Solar, SpectraWatt), and a 65% decline in the MAC Global Solar Energy Index (SUNIDX), 2011 was a bad year for the solar industry.  Now into 2012, the hits just keep on coming.

Last week, the long-time solar energy poster-child First Solar (NASDAQ: FSLR) announced it was closing its German factory and laying off 2000 employees.  Earlier in April, Solar Trust and Q-Cells filed for bankruptcy, following on the heels of the bankruptcy filing of Energy Conversion Devices in February.  Turning from photovoltaics to solar thermal, BrightSource Energy withdrew at the last-minute its planned initial public offering on April 11, citing “adverse market conditions”. 

Adverse market conditions, indeed!  Quoting the immortal Vince Lombardi, “What the hell is going on out here?”

There are at least four fundamental forces at play that are battering the solar markets: 

First, over the past few years, China has made an astounding push into solar energy.  Whereas China was a non-factor in the solar industry not long ago, today China owns about 50% market share of supply.  Achieving this massive leap-frog was clearly an act of state-driven industrial policy, as it required enormous sums of capital — far beyond what would be justified solely to supply the Chinese domestic market for solar energy.  But, it’s more than merely state-sponsorship:  in March, the U.S. Department of Commerce found that Chinese solar manufacturers had been “dumping” their products into U.S. markets at prices below cost, exploiting unfair subsidies available to them from the Chinese government but not available to non-Chinese players.  Stay tuned to this brewing trade war.

Second, a ton of capital has been invested over the past several years in next-generation solar technology ventures.  While the technologies have differed widely, all have been premised on significantly reducing the costs of solar energy and enabling the market to expand by orders of magnitude.  Although some of these ventures have crashed-and-burned (e.g., Solyndra), others are still alive and may end up doing very well.  At the very least, these ventures have pushed the boundaries of innovation in the solar industry overall, which in turn has reduced the costs of solar energy in many ways and aspects — which in turn is in fact exponentially expanding the potential market for solar energy.

Third, European demand for new solar installations has fallen off a cliff.  Many of the leading European solar markets — Germany, Spain, Portugal and Greece — all had very aggressive “feed-in tariff” policies, promising very high prices for any electricity generated by solar installations.  These prices had remained high, in fact escalated, while solar costs declined precipitously, enabling solar investors windfall profits:  a classic bubble, which has now largely burst, given the financial straits in which many of the above-noted European countries find themselves.  (Dedicated readers of this blog will recall my long-standing lack of enthusiasm about the feed-in tariff subsidy approach.  Its flaws are now being starkly revealed.)

Fourth, plummeting natural gas prices — due to the surge in supply, associated with the shale gas boom enabled by the broad deployment of advanced fracking approaches — are causing U.S. electricity prices to fall, and solar companies struggle to compete.  A quote from Andrew Beebe of Suntech (leading Chinese manufacturer, widely accused of dumping) in a recent New York Times article called “Clouds on Solar’s Horizon” speaks volumes:  “We’re really not competitive” at current natural gas prices.

The first two forces have dramatically increased supply and reduced costs of solar energy, whereas the second two forces have substantially depressed demand for solar energy.  When combined, the conclusion is simple:  the solar market is experiencing a massive glut.  Solar customers clearly benefit, but solar companies feel the pain acutely.

So, these are dark days for the solar industry.  According to this article in the Washington Post, even the Chinese companies that have come to dominate are hurting. 

But, as they say, it’s always “Darkest Before Dawn”…which in fact is the title of a new white paper by McKinsey & Company that presents the flip-side of this story.  The authors — Krister Aanesen, Stefan Heck and Dickon Pinner — argue that the impending shakeout and consolidation is quite typical of industry at solar’s stage of maturity, and that there will be a bright future for solar energy not that long from now.  That may be more true for customers and the planet, as low-cost and non-emitting solar energy becomes much more widespread, than for industry participants, who will face increasingly intense and relentless competitive pressures to constantly innovate and improve their technologies and business processes. 

From an investment perspective, perhaps the bottom is approaching or is being hit right now for the solar industry.  Earlier this year, Gordon Johnson, solar industry analyst from Axiom Capital Management, reversed his 14-month bearish position on the industry.  However, as of this writing, SUNIDX is still trending downwards — though the decline is shallowing.

For those in the solar sector, the road is bumpy and will be for at least awhile.  Seat belts fastened, please.

Concentrating (on) Utility-Scale Solar Energy

Last week, at the invitation of organizer Green Power Conferences, I attended their Solar Power Generation USA conference in Las Vegas.

Of course, there are innumerable events pertaining to the solar energy space, and each needs its own niche of differentiation.  This conference pertained solely to utility-scale solar power projects.  In other words, this is the remaining part of the solar industry when rooftop and off-grid installations are excluded.

“Focus” is a key word that describes this portion of the solar industry, because the two primary technologies for large-scale solar projects both employ lenses to concentrate sunlight to achieve lower costs per unit of energy produced.

Concentrating solar power (CSP) involves the use of lenses to focus sunlight on a vessel containing a liquid.  As the liquid is heated, it then drives a steam turbine to generate electricity.  At a conceptual level, this type of power generation has been used for decades in conventional utility powerplants fired by fossil fuels (coal, oil or natural gas), only with CSP the sun is being harnessed to provide the heat.

Concentrating photovoltaics (CPV) involves the use of lenses to focus sunlight on super high-efficiency PV cells.  In contrast to conventional PV modules, which have conversion efficiencies of less than 20% (i.e., less than 20% of the sun’s energy is converted into electricity), CPV enables conversion efficiencies approaching 40%.

Common to both technologies, a typical power project entails several modular installations spread over a sizable chunk of land — usually patches of desert — aggregating to tens or even hundreds of megawatts, with a common point of interconnection to the utility grid.  See, for example, the Ivanpah project of 392 megawatts being developed in California by BrightSource Energy.

The overall message was that CPV and CSP projects can be undertaken today, with power purchase agreements priced at 10 cents/kwh or lower.  A key theme expressed at the conference was the “bankability” of CSP and CPV — no doubt, to assure the risk-averse universe of bank financiers, utility off-takers, and project developers in the audience.   Although not necessarily household names for Americans, the involvement of such large publicly-traded (albeit European) corporations as Areva (Euronext: AREVA.PA), Acciona (BMAD: ANA), Abengoa (BMAD: ABG) and Soitec (Euronext:  SOIT.LN) should give comfort that adequate financial wherewithal stands behind CSP or CPV projects to support long-term warranties. 

Each of these concentrating solar technologies has its advantages and disadvantages.  CPV makes more sense than CSP where water is very expensive, because CPV doesn’t involve the steam cycle.  On the other hand, unlike CPV, CSP’s thermal inertia enables energy storage that can extend the power production period beyond solely the daylight hours, and also “rides through” passsing clouds with minimal power fluctuations, thereby reducing the need for CSP owners/operators to purchase ancillary services (e.g., voltage control, frequency regulation).  This tends to make CSP a higher-value power generation solution for grid operators than CPV.

In any event, CPV and CSP will not dominate the world.  They are only economically viable where direct normal irradiation (DNI) — known to the lay-person as clear sunlight — is very high.  Thus, CSP and CPV will not be ubiquitous, but rather a solution only in certain (typically sparsely-populated) parts of the world, and thus will remain only a minority segment of the solar industry, which will be dominated by conventional PV. 

Even so, it is possible to imagine these technologies being widely adopted in deserts in the decades to come — and there is a lot of desert footprint on this Earth.  That growth potential is why some of the big names listed above have been concentrating their attention on concentrating solar energy.

2011 In The Rear-View Mirror: Objects May Be Closer Than They Appear

It’s that time again:  sifting through the detritus of a calendar year to sum up what’s happened over the past 12 months. 

Everybody’s doing it — for news, sports, movies, books, notable deaths…and now even for cleantech:  here’s the scoop from MIT’s Technology Review, and here’s a post on GigaOM.

So, my turn [drum roll, please], here’s my top 10 take-aways from 2011:

  1. Solyndra.  The utter failure of Solyndra, and the messy loan guarantee debacle, has been a huge black-eye to the cleantech sector.  It’s a political football that will be kicked around extensively during the 2012 election cycle, further widening the schism of support levels by the two major U.S. political parties for cleantech.  In other words, cleantech is becoming an ever-more polarizing issue — with Solyndra serving as the most visible tar-baby.
  2. Shale gas and fracking.   A chorus of ardent proponents of natural gas development, most vocally Aubrey McClendon, the CEO of Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK) — the largest player in the shale gas game — is repeatedly chanting the mantra that shale gas is so plentiful that it can very cheaply serve as the major U.S. energy source for the next several decades.  And, recovery of this resource will create a bazillion jobs for hard-working Americans in rural areas.  In this view, who needs renewables?  Interestingly, this view also poses increasing threats to coal interests as well.  On the flip side, of course, the concerns about the use of fracking techniques, and the implications on water supplies and quality, are constant fodder for headlines.  Clearly, shale and fracking will continue to be hot topics for 2012.
  3. Keystone XL.  The proposed pipeline to increase capacity for transporting oil from the Athabasca sands of Alberta to the U.S. is the current lightning rod for the American environmental community.  Never mind that denying the pipeline’s construction will do very little to inhibit the development of the oil sands resources — Canadian producers will assuredly build a planned pipeline across British Columbia to ship the stuff to Asia.  Never mind that blocking the pipeline will do nothing to reduce U.S. oil consumption — which is, after all, the source of the greenhouse gas emissions that opponents are so concerned about.  This has become an issue of principle for NRDC and other environmental advocates:  “we must start taking concrete steps to wean ourselves from fossil fuels.”  Nice idea in theory, but this action won’t actually do anything to accomplish the goal, and will only further paint the environmental community in a damaging manner as being anti-business and anti-economics.  In my view, we have to work on reducing demand, not on curtailing supply; if we reduce demand, less development of fossil fuels will follow; the other way around doesn’t work.  The Obama Administration has punted approval for the pipeline past the 2012 election, but Keystone XL — like Solyndra — will be a major framing element in the political debates.
  4. Fukushima.  The terrible earthquake/tsunami in Japan in March killed over 20,000 people — and sent the Fukushima powerplant into meltdown mode in the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986.  As costly and devastating as Fukushima was to the local region, it pales compared to the damages caused by the natural disasters themselves.  Even so, the revival of the perceived possibility that radioactive clouds could spew from nuclear powerplants put a severe brake on the “nuclear renaissance” that many observers had been predicting.
  5. Chevy Volt.  Released after much anticipation in 2011, sales of the plug-in electric hybrid Volt have been well below expectations.  Furthermore, as I recently discussed here, a few well-publicized incidents of fires stemming from damaged batteries have been a huge PR blow to gaining widespread consumer acceptance of electric vehicles.  Clearly, Chevy and others in the EV space have their work cut out for them in the months and years ahead.
  6. Challenges for coal.  As I recently wrote about on this page, the EPA has been working on promulgating a whole host of tightened regulations about emissions from coal powerplants.  These continue to move back and forth through the agencies and the courts, and coal interests continue to wage their battles.  But, between this set of pressures and low natural gas prices (see #2 above), these are tough days for old King Coal.  Not that they couldn’t have seen these challenges coming for decades, mind you, and not that some of their advocacy organizations don’t continue to tell their pro-coal messages with some of the most heavy-handed and dubiously factual propaganda outside of the recently-deceased “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il
  7. Light bulbs.  One of the most absurd and petty dramas of 2011 unfolded over the planned U.S. phase-out of incandescent light bulbs, as provided for in one of the provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007Representative Joe Barton (R-TX) led a backlash against this ban, arguing that it was an example of too much government intrusion into consumer choice — and succeeded in having the ban lifted at least for a little while, tucked into one of the meager compromises achieved as part of the ongoing budgetary fights.  This was accomplished against the objections not of consumers, but the objections of light bulb manufacturers themselves, who had already committed themselves to transitioning to manufacturing capacity for the next-generation of light bulbs:  CFLs, LEDs and halogens.  Now, the proactive companies who invested in the future will be subject to being undercut by a possible influx of cheap imported incandescent bulbs.  Way to go, Congress!  No wonder your approval ratings are near 10%.  Is it possible for you guys to focus on the big important stuff rather than on small bad ideas? 
  8. PV market dynamics.  Solyndra (#1 above) failed in large part because the phovoltaics market has become much more intensely competitive over the past year.  Module prices have fallen dramatically — no doubt, in large part because the market is now saturated by supply from Chinese manufacturers, who are sometimes accused of “dumping” (i.e., subsidizing exports of) PV modules into the U.S. marketplace.  This is stressing the financials of many PV manufacturers, including some Chinese firms and other established players.  For instance, BP (NYSE: BP) announced a few weeks ago its exit from the solar business after 40 years.  However, the stresses are falling mainly on companies that employ PV technology that cannot be cost-competitive in a lower pricing regime, whereas some of the new PV entrants — not just Chinese players, but some U.S. venture-backed players like Stion (who just raised $130 million of new investment) — are aiming to be profitable at low price levels.  And, after all, the low prices are what is needed for solar energy to achieve grid-parity, which is what everyone is seeking for PV to be ubiquitous without subsidies. 
  9. Subsidies.  Ah, subsidies.  In an era of increasing fiscal tightness (see #10 below), pro-cleantech policies are under greater scrutiny.  In particular, renewable portfolio standards are being threatened by state legislators of a particular philosophy who are opposed to subsidies in all forms.  The philosophy is understandable, but the lack of understanding or hypocracy is less easy to defend:  the status quo is almost always subsidized too, especially during its early days of development and deployment — and often remains subsidized well after maturity and commercial profitability.  Fortunately, there’s an increasing body of high-quality work that assesses the energy subsidy landscape in a generally objective manner, such as this analysis released by DBL Investors in September.
  10. Europe.  Although not a cleantech issue per se, the vulnerability of the European economy, the European Union, and the Euro in the wake of the various debt crises unfolding across the Continent is a major negative factor for the cleantech sector.  Europe is the biggest cleantech market, and many of the leading cleantech investors and corporate acquirers are European, so a recession (or worse, depression)  in Europe will be a very big and very bad deal for cleantech companies.

In all, 2011 was not a great year for the cleantech sector, and I don’t see 2012 being much better.  But, that’s not to say that good things can’t happen, or won’t happen.  Indeed, there will always be rays of sunshine among the clouds…or, to use another metaphor, you’ll always be able to find a pony in there somewhere.

Happy New Year everyone!

It’s A Nano World

For the uninitiated, “nanotechnology” refers to the science of the very small, engineering particles and their corresponding materials at the nanometer scale.  For a sense of perspective, at one-billionth of a meter, a nanometer is about 1/60,000 of the width of a human hair, so we’re talking engineering not just at the microscopic scale, but the electron-microscopic scale.

Why bother?  Because researchers from across a number of disciplines have discovered that engineering particles at such minute scale can change the fundamental performance characteristics of the material.  You want a material that captures a certain wavelength of light, or transmits a certain frequency of energy?  You just might be able to obtain it by tweaking currently available materials at the nanoscale, to change the “morphology” (think texture) of the particles so that they behave in the desired way.

The nano-world is sometimes mind-bending.  For instance, with enough wrinkles, folds or pockets, a particle with the volume of a grain of sand can have a surface area much greater than that of a basketball.  When you’re able to play topological tricks like this, amazing performance improvements in even the most basic stuff can be achieved.

As this capability has been increasingly revealed in the past decade or so, more and more acadmic research and an increasing number of companies are investigating how nano-engineering can improve the performance of all sorts of things.  This is especially true for the cleantech arena. 

Product innovation ranges across the map:  nanomaterials optimized for increased performance of membranes for fuel cells and cathodes for batteries, enhanced thermal insulation for building materials, higher capacity of contaminant capture from water, and on and on and on.

At few weeks ago, as the investment banking firm Livingston Securities convened their 7th Annual Nanotechnology Conference in New York City, Crystal Research Associates released a new report, entitled “Nanotechnology and the Built Environment:  The Transition to Green Infrastructure”.  This document profiles some of the seemingly-mature industrial sectors that are being transformed by nanotechnology, including some of the biggest corporations in the world such as GE (NYSE: GE), BASF (Deutsche:  BAS), Siemens (NYSE:  SIE) and Honeywell (NYSE:  HON) working on some of the smallest scales imaginable.

The report covers many of the sectors you’d expect to be revolutionized by materials enhancements, such as photovoltaics and lighting, but also touches on a couple of real surprises.  For instance, consider NanoSteel – a company that is commercializing metallic coating technology developed at the Idaho National Laboratory to improve the performance of structural metals under challenging environmental conditions, such as high temperature or corrosion.

In addition to NanoSteel, other presenters at Livingston’s nanotech conference that particularly piqued my personal interest included Siluria (developing an approach to convert methane into ethylene, thereby reducing the requirement for petroleum to make plastics) and QM Power (offering a new basic design of motors and generators promising higher-efficiencies).

It’s always interesting to go to events such as this to get exposed to companies working under the radar screen that are aiming to achieve fascinating innovations, sometimes in the most mundane or obscure areas.  Even if not all these companies will ultimately be successful, either in serving customer needs or in generating good returns to investors, it’s heartening to note the degree and scope of creative disruption that continues to seethe in our world of incredible challenges, turbulence and pessimism/cynicism. 

Many players thinking big about the future are moving small, as small as possible.

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. 😉


Branding Solar Energy

by Richard T. Stuebi

One of the biggest challenges facing cleantech, relative to other forms of technological innovation, is that the basic markets being served are widely viewed as commodities.

In high-tech, many people are willing to pay very high (and profitable) prices for new gadgets with cool functionality.  Witness just about everything that Apple makes, along with anything in the videogame sector.

In health care and life sciences, cost is often not much of an object.  When you face the prospect of (for instance) prostate cancer treatments, you might be willing to pay a LOT more for a non-invasive approach.  I know I would.

However, rarely does anyone want to pay one iota more than necessary for something like energy.  And, that creates a huge problem for those who are trying to sell into these markets but have high cost structures. 

In the photovoltaics industry, German companies that dominated the sector have now given way to Chinese module manufacturers that can kill them on price and cost.  As this recent article from the New York Times discusses, the German players are attempting to maintain share and profitability by positioning themselves as premium products, worth paying more to obtain.

I wish them well, but I think it’s going to be a tough sell.  In my view, the only way possible to fetch a price premium is to make the case that the full life-cycle ownership cost is lower (i.e., less maintenance, more power production) when the higher-priced product is bought.

Otherwise, branding in the solar energy field will be extremely challenging.  You might look cool driving a Porsche, and might get an ego stroke from wearing a Hermes tie, but I’m having a very hard time imagining you’ll get any psychic benefit from buying a higher-priced solar panel — no matter what a well-paid pitchman may say.