Intersolar: Bringing solar to the masses

The 200 GW figure, tossed out by Meyer Burger Technology’s chief technology officer, Patrick Hofer-Noser, is more conjecture than prediction, but the number formed the basis of discussion about what the solar industry needs to do to expand solar’s reach.

Silicon panels will continue to dominate with around 80 percent market share, Hofer-Noser said; a sentiment which was echoed by two other executives in the silicon camp – Sandra Beach Lin, CEO of Calisolar, and Shawn Qu, CEO of Canadian Solar.

It’s not surprising to hear the bullish sentiment coming from companies which would benefit from seeing silicon’s continual dominance. But the sentiment also reflects a mood shift from a sector that not so long ago seemed destined to lose a significant market share to thin film solar developers, who believed silicon pricing would remain high, and render silicon solar cell and panel makers less competitive over time.

Silicon pricing has fallen quickly in the past two years as production has been boosted. Cuts to solar incentives in key European markets such as Germany, Italy and France have further depressed silicon prices, along with solar panel prices, in recent months. Bloomberg New Energy Finance said spot market price for silicon fell 28 percent from May to June this year, to reach $53.4 per kilogram. Silicon solar panel prices also declined 6.5 percent to reach $1.68 per watt.

Even so, thin film companies still pose a threat as they scale up production and improve their products’ performance. To stay ahead and to set themselves apart from one another, silicon technology developers – from wafer to solar panel manufacturers – have been investing heavily in innovations to produce more efficient solar cells and panels.

Suntech Power, along with many manufactures, has been using an expired patent to develop a process that bakes hybrid and higher-quality multicrystalline silicon wafers.

Silicon technology developers also have been speaking about how their processes are improving the solar cells’ ability to convert low light into electricity and continue to perform even in hot climates. These two features historically have been the talking points of thin film developers.

For our UMG silicon, we are just at the beginning for discovering what this material can do," Lin said. "One thing we just found out with [National Renewable Energy Laboratory] is that our material is showing great performances at low light."

Calisolar purifies metallurgical-grade silicon into a version called upgraded metallurgical silicon (UMG) that is suitable for solar cell manufacturing. The company makes solar cells from UMG and sells the cells to module makers. Calisolar, based in Silicon Valley, is working on securing a $275 million loan to help build a UMG factory.

Technology advancements alone won’t popularize solar though. Embedding solar cells into roofing and other building materials remain a largely unexplored and attractive market, Hofer-Noser pointed out. These applications could become popular in urban areas with high rise buildings and limited open space for bulking solar equipment.

Concentrating photovoltaic (CPV) technology also has gained traction over the past year. Several technology developers have seen equipment being installed in California and southwestern United States.

Policy will remain a critical piece. The declining incentives in Europe have prompted manufactures to devote more time to build sales in the United States, Asia and the Middle East. More efforts are underway to make solar accessible to renters, said Marc van Gerven, managing director Q-Cells North America.

"There are many homes and multitenant buildings where you just can’t have solar on the roof," van Gerven said. "So there are virtual net metering and community solar being discussed."

In fact, California regulators on Thursday approved a policy that makes it possible for apartment dwellers to shave their utility bills by getting credits for the electricity produced by a communal solar electric system at the apartment complex.