Incremental innovations at Clean Energy Expo

Time magazine’s “Hero of the Environment” for 2008, Joachim Luther, spoke of three important goals that the solar industry should have: bring costs down, bring costs down and, once again, bring costs down.

Sticking to the subject, the CEO of the National University of Singapore’s Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore (SERIS), did not stop emphasizing the need to bring the costs down, in order for solar to be not just competitive enough to attain grid parity, but also cost parity.

Luther stated, "Solar can be applied everywhere. I believe that solar will also be holding a giant share of the renewables market in the future." When probed about his visions for new technologies, he comically added that there will be none, which led to some alarm for a split second. "Costs will be brought down. Not by a sudden new revolution in technology, but rather by incremental innovations," he stressed.

In a conversation with Armin Aberle, deputy CEO and director of Silicon Photovoltaics Program at SERIS, pv magazine raised the question of breakthroughs in photovoltaics again. Someone in the circle mentioned that the new third or fourth generation PV technology could revolutionize the industry.

Aberle, flinching at the sentence said, "Don’t say those words, first generation, second generation. We do not like that. It means that when a so-called first generation technology dies when something better and new comes along. That is not true for PV. It is all incremental innovations." That is apparently the new buzzword as the two key note speakers asserted them to the attentive audience: incremental innovations in photovoltaics.

Luther also emphasized that the industry has to be careful in investing in the correct new advancements of the PV technologies that appear. Then, there is hope for grid parity. He reflects confidence in the science and development that is put into the field and Aberle seconds that.

Luther also added that the best modules, inverters and cables can all be put together, but with a bad system design, it can mess a lot of things up and the efficiencies will be disappointing. Thus system design is also crucial in the bid towards achieving not just grid, but also cost parity for solar. Aberle added, "The cost of PV is likely to be halved this decade."

He ranked monocrystalline silicon, multi crystalline silicon, CIS (CIGS), CdTe, Micromorph Silicon and Amorphous silicon as the six technologies that dominate in terms of efficiencies, where the innovations are incremental, to reassert the buzz word. When asked about CdTe, with the environmental question hanging over it, he added that the window of opportunity in terms of efficiency for CdTe is high.

Nevertheless, he said that there are ten important PV technologies and six are silicon based. The cruel reality (for thin film manufacturers probably) as Aberle mentioned is that the market is dominated by silicon based technologies. "Nothing beats crystalline wafer technology," he replied candidly.

So, instead of looking for a revolutionary new discovery in PV, the stress has been on improving what is already existing and working.

A simple philosophy of improving what is already there. As Christophe Inglin, co-founder and managing director of Phoenix Solar told us, "There are no silver bullets. The cost cuttings can already be achieved with what we are currently developing."