Solar Companies Innovate to Cut Costs - TheStreet

I pointed out in May how solar manufacturers can differentiate their products, particularly during the economic slowdown that has dropped capacity utilization to below 50%, and most importantly, how can they do it cheaply. Several solar companies are taking innovative steps to cut costs.

A clear way is to increase efficiency of the solar modules. Studies have shown that a 1% increase in efficiency leads to a 5% to 7% decrease in module costs.

First Solar

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expects to cut costs from 87 cents per watt to between 52 and 62 cents per watt by improving the conversion efficiency of its cadmium telluride panels to somewhere between 16% and 18%.

1366 Technologies

is developing a technology that it claims can boost multicrystalline silicon cells from 16% efficiency to 18% efficiency, thereby reducing their cost per watt, by giving the solar cells a rougher texture. The start-up raised $12.4 million in 2008.

Xerocoat

developed a coating strategy that increases efficiency by 4% on not only a multicrystalline silicon cell but thin film cells as well. The company received $3 million in DOE funding in 2009.

SolarPA

, Lehigh Valley, Pa., has developed a process of using nanocoatings utilizing 3-7nm proprietary nanomaterials to increase the efficiency of solar cells by as much as 12%. Previously, the start-up had achieved a 10% increase in efficiency on both crystalline and thin-film solar cells using an electrospinning process. New achievements have demonstrated a 12% increase in efficiency using a spin-on process, which embeds the nanomaterial in a polymer matrix that can be deposited with conventional spin-on or spray-on equipment.

The technology replaces existing antireflection coatings (ARC) using SiN deposited by expensive vacuum CVD processes, thus lowering the processing cost as well as increasing the efficiency. The ARC allows for more diffuse off-angle light to be captured, generating more energy per rated watt than a conventional solar panel.

Applied Materials

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is working on a number of ways to boost the efficiency of the a-Si films produced by its machines. One possibility would create an alternative structure using the same machines by changing the sequence in which the panels are manufactured.

SunPower's

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anti-reflective coated glass and larger, more powerful all-back contact solar cells, which helped it achieve the highest efficiency in the industry.

First Solar has set the benchmark at 87 cents per watt as the company "continues to realize the benefit from increased production in low cost locations." namely Malaysia. But solar companies cannot readily transplant 10 gigawatts (GW) production to low-cost locations in Asia. Manufacturing needs to be done in the U.S., otherwise, as I said in March 2009, "Which Is Worse: Buying Solar Panels from Eurasia or Oil from OPEC?"

Robert N. Castellano, Ph.D, is President of The Information Network, a leading consulting and market-research firm for the semiconductor, LCD, HDD and solar industries. Castellano is internationally recognized as one of the leading experts in these areas. He has nearly 25 years of expertise as an industry analyst. Castellano has provided insight on emerging technologies to many business and technical publications, including Business 2.0, BusinessWeek, The Economist, Forbes, Investor's Business Daily, Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and corporate events. He has over 10 years' experience in the field of wafer fabrication at AT&T Bell Laboratories and Stanford University before founding The Information Network in 1985. He has been editor of the peer-reviewed Journal of Active and Passive Electronic Devices since 1985. He is author of the book "Technology Trends in VLSI Manufacturing," published by Gordon and Breach. His book "Solar Cell Processing" was published in 2009 by Old City Publishing. He received his Ph.D. in solid state chemistry from Oxford University.