The solar industry no longer needs a breakthrough to achieve one

At a time when the business community is focused on deployment, it will be important to ensure that the industry keeps abreast of latest research to create a smooth path from lab to market.

Hardly a day goes by without an announcement of another “breakthrough” in solar power generation. From quantum dot solar cells to multi-junction solar cells to black silicon or perovskites solar cells, many options beyond simple crystalline silicon solar cells are exciting scientists in universities and research labs worldwide. What kind of a future do these competing options have? What role will they play in getting the cost of solar down in time to help combat climate change?

The short-term answer to both questions, it turns out, is “not much”. And this may be good news, because it suggests that, in many ways, the industry is now mature.

The past 18 months, for example, have seen several record-low bids and power purchase agreements in the 4-8¢/kWh range (5.7-8¢/kWh without subsidies) in countries as varied as the UAE, US and India. In the last, a recent bid by Canadian firm SkyPower was 25% below the levelised cost of electricity in India. The learning rate of silicon solar photovoltaics—the cost reductions achieved  for every doubling of cumulative capacity deployed—has also averaged 24.2% since the 1980s, according to Jenny Chase, manager of solar insight for Bloomberg New Energy Finance. She expects this trend to continue over the coming decades.

The overall result has been a massive deployment of solar, with global capacity increasing more than 44 times during 2004-2014 to reach 177gW (22% of which was installed in 2014 alone).

The dominant role of silicon-based solar PV doesn’t mean that new technologies won’t have a place in this picture. Black silicon augmented with carbon nanotubes, for example, can absorb more light from a wider variety of angles than typical crystalline silicon solar cells. Similarly, quantum dots have a higher theoretical efficiency (45%) than conventional photovoltaic cells (29%).

But with solar modules now just 13% of the total system costs, the industry’s growth does imply that technology breakthroughs are no longer needed to ensure rapid penetration by solar. “We are still very happy with first-generation [solar cells] and there is plenty of room for improvement,” says Trina Solar’s chief scientist, Pierre Verlinden.

Ms Chase agrees: “Chinese multi-crystalline silicon modules [the most common sort] are about 61¢/W on the world market. We expect this price to drop to about 21 cents in 2040 just by incremental improvements in crystalline silicon technology (thinner wafers, better-shaped busbars, better coating, more targeted doping, better contact technology).” The great reduction in technology cost also means that efforts to de-risk investment and reduce financing costs are now, more than ever, key to deployment—access to low-cost funds, in fact, was one of the main reasons behind SkyPower’s exceptionally low bid as well as ACWA Power’s bid of 5.84¢/kWh in Dubai.

The arrival of new, competitive technologies on the market should, of course—and always—be welcome. And at a time when the business community is focused on deployment, it will be important to ensure that the industry keeps abreast of latest research to create a smooth path from lab to market.

Meanwhile, incremental progress in silicon solar cells is expected to make commercial or residential solar PV prices competitive in most regions by 2020, according to the IEA. That is great news, indeed, for, as a keen observer speaking anonymously notes, it suggests the solar industry has reached a point where “we no longer need a breakthrough to achieve one”.

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