The Photovoltaic Revolution

Nobody knows for sure how low conventional manufacturing costs are for photovoltaics, since at the wholesale price of $4.00 per watt they are being sold, everywhere, as fast as they can be made. Demand has exceeded supply for photovoltaics for several years, and even with incremental decreases in cost and increases in supply, this will continue.

But the revolution is here.

Thin film photovoltaics use far less silicon, which dramatically lowers costs. In fact – “thin film” is a catch all term – some thin film photovoltaics use no silicon at all. There are several companies pursuing thin film technology, Nanosolar, Miasole, Konarka, Heliovolt, and Innovalight. And we are getting very close to seeing the proof in the pudding: As we reported on September 29th in Miasole Photovoltaics, this company expects to have their production line up and running before the end of 2006, producing 25MW of output per year.

Nanosolar has even more ambitious plans and they aren’t far behind. As we reported on September 21st in Nanosolar & Conergy Group, within the next two years they intend to have a production line up and producing 430MW of output per year! Both of these companies claim they can replicate these factories all over the world, and both of them claim their manufacturing costs, compared to conventional processes, could drop by a factor of 10x or more.

They aren’t alone. The heavyweights who are already in this business – BP Solar, Energy Conversion, Evergreen Solar, Kyocera, Mitsubishi, Motech, Q-Cells, Sanyo, Sharp, Sunpower, Suntech, and Shell Solar – are working feverishly on thin film technology.

There’s more. While photovoltaics easily provide adequate energy per square foot of array – we prove in Power the World with Photovoltaics that it would only take 600 square feet of area per person, worldwide, for photovoltaics to replace ALL energy currently consumed by the human race – the efficiency of photovoltaics may be poised to make a huge leap.

Currently the Atwater Reserch Group at Caltech in California is working on “nanorods” and “optical micro-concentrators” which will dramatically increase the surface area of photovoltaic receptors within a given square foot of photovoltaic array. Partnering with them in this effort is BP Solar. If this development ever comes to fruition, photovoltaic panels won’t just be on rooftops, they might actually start appearing on the skin of electric cars.

The entire photovoltaic manufacturing output in the world in 2005 was a paltry 1.6 gigawatts. The entire installed base of photovoltaics in the world is only about 10 gigawatts. This is going to change overnight. If thin film technology is proven commercially, and we may know this within one year, the worldwide output of photovoltaics will go up by orders of magnitude. If that happens, the promise of cheap, abundant, clean and renewable energy will be well on its way to being realized.

3 Responses to “The Photovoltaic Revolution”
  1. Mike Swift says:

    It seems that there are dozens of companies announcing that they are about to produce megawatts of low cost solar cells. When they actually ship and with a warranty for ten or twenty years I will believe it. Until then they are just like the hundreds of other companies whose main output is press releases.

  2. Ed Ring says:

    Mike: For an answer to your excellent point, please reference our 11-02 post “Thin Film vs. Silicon Ingots.”

  3. Bill Harmon says:

    1) What is the efficiency of these thin films?

    2) How will the efficiency hold up over time? Many PV’s degrade to 50% or less of their ORIGINAL efficiency, which is usually pretty low–around 10%


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