Industry urges European PV research sector to 'wake up'

A symposium on European PV research infrastructures held yesterday at the National Solar Energy Institute in Chambery, France, sparked a heated debate between leading industry representatives and researchers as to the future direction of PV research in Europe.

Gathered to discuss the outcomes of the four-year Sophia RI program – which sought to bring greater collaboration and cooperation between Europe’s leading solar research institutes – industry veterans from Manz AG, Meyer Burger and Photowatt were unequivocal in their criticism of current practices.

"You have to wake up!”, barked Sylvère Leu, chief innovation officer at Switzerland’s Meyer Burger Technology AG. "We need a better link in Europe between the research industry and the customer. We need research institutes to produce technology that is commercial-ready. As industry, we need to be able to implement, immediately, the technology that you are producing."

Leu’s battle-cry was echoed by Vincent Bes, general director of French solar company Photowatt, who called on the audience members – whom were gathered from a number of Europe’s most prominent research institutes including CEA, INES, Fraunhofer ISE, imec, ECN and Loughborough University – to get out of the labs and schools and go and work with the industry, adding: "they need you."

"There are more people here in this room than there are [PV] plant managers in Europe," said Bes. "That is wrong. If your ideas and research cannot be transferred into the industry, then they are useless."

Bes spoke of how Europe "won the first battle" in creating the PV industry, but is "losing the second battle" to China and the U.S. as PV production and innovation increasingly moves east and west.

The Sophia project

Bes’s suggestion to merge all of the leading research institutes in Europe under one pan-continental PV umbrella was a nod to what the Sophia project had hoped to achieve.

Launched in February 2011, Sophia’s aim was to assess how best Europe’s solar researchers could work together to maintain Europe’s excellence in PV research. The four-year program – which ends next week – granted free access for PV experts to perform their research in a number of facilities around Europe.

The program attracted 17 research centers and three organizations, who worked together on eight specific research topics: silicon material; thin film and TCOs; OPV; modeling; CPV; BIPV; PV module lifetime, and PV module and system performance. With European Commission (EC) funding of €9 million ($10.2 million), the goal of the program was simple: work together to learn more.

"Initiatives like Sophia RI must continue to be supported as part of a broader package of support for PV research infrastructure," said new INES director and project co-ordinator Philippe Malbranche. "Specific support is needed for research infrastructure applicable to all parts of the value chain, from unique facilities for fundamental work to replicated research infrastructure further downstream."

Sophia findings

The results of the program were presented at the symposium. Michael Köhl of Fraunhofer ISE delivered a demonstration of how greater collaboration under the project had given researchers a better understanding of the module ageing process, with researchers able to collaborate and collude on best-practice when undertaking accelerated lifecycle testing.

Jurgen Hüpkes of Jülich presented Sophia’s findings on improved software infrastructure, while Suren Gevorgyan, a researcher at DTU Energy Conversion at the Technical University of Denmark, spoke of how the project had helped bring a series of standardization steps to the field of organic PV (OPV).

"The lack of any standardization had always been a serious issue for OPV, which has held back that first step towards industrialization," said Gevorgyan. "We cannot borrow standards from the inorganic sector, so Sophia has aided the creation of established guidelines for the sector that has also raised awareness of potential further challenges as we look to bring OPV closer to commercialization."

EC involvement

Representation from the European Commission (EC) were present in the form of Nigel Taylor, who leads the EC’s photovoltaics R&D project in the renewable energy unit of the Institute for Energy and Transport; and Paul Verhoef, head of unit – New and Renewable Energy Sources at the EC. Verhoef revealed that the EC will publish a paper on energy union strategy next month, telling the audience the intention is to "identify challenges and goals of a potential energy union in Europe".

"Where are the easy wins? Where do we have to accept that China can do this or that better, and why is the investment climate in Europe so difficult?," he asked. "There is plenty of money in Europe. But as we see pension funds divest from fossil fuels, that does not automatically mean that the money will instead be steered into PV research and industry. These investors are very risk averse, especially in Europe, so there will always be a reluctance to back new technologies such as those being researched and developed in Europe."

Jan Kroon of ECN stressed that a key learning metric from the Sophia project was the realization that Europe’s research institutes need to embrace a series of consolidation strategies, including greater internationalization and a concentration on niche markets, clustering platforms, and complementary services to industry. "We need to market ourselves better as a cost-saving option," he said.

Bernhard Dimmler, research project coordinator at Manz, took a consolidatory stance, calling on industry to lend greater steer to Europe’s research institutes if either hope to survive. “PV is still a rapidly innovating industry, so we need researchers to continue working in these spaces.

"It is, however, a daily concern to convince researchers what is important for us. It is a struggle. The two sectors are different worlds, and so we need greater collaboration and more guidance from industry."

The symposium at least reached a consensus that money across Europe is tight, particularly when compared to the deep and seemingly bottomless pockets of Chinese competition, but Photowatt’s Bes suggested that money does not necessarily have to be scarce if the ideas and research is good. "You don’t need governments or the EC to finance good ideas," he said. “Convince us your research is good and we will fund it."

The Sophia project will be ‘survived’ by a similar project called Cheetah, which is a two-year, EC-backed project looking at ways to engineer cost reduction and higher energy output in PV via joining Europe’s R&D efforts. Cheetah is being coordinated by ECN and will run for one more year, having been established in 2014 to run concurrently with Sophia’s efforts.

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