The year in solar, part II: A lively show season, more legal shenanigans and rising panel efficiencies abound


The April-to-June period is a popular part of the year in solar, with the arrival of the trade shows, and this year’s Intersolar Europe event in Munich certainly did not disappoint.

Amid the welter of new product launches at a buzzing event, pv magazine was particularly busy. We officially launched our pv magazine Live feature as our team of solar hacks prowled the floors of the show and fired over updates for you via our live blog, in between laments about the patchy wifi provision and the dreadful consequences of arriving too late in the press area for muffins.

We also cracked open a bottle of Champagne against the metaphorical hull of the newest part of our global fleet: pv magazine France.

Not content with all that activity, we launched our UP sustainability campaign to put the green credentials of solar properly under the spotlight. We feel it is a necessary intervention. While understandable positivity has flowed from ever decreasing solar component prices, insufficient attention appears to have been paid by many of the proponents of clean energy around the world to just what proportion of the millions of panels pouring out of China have been, at least in part created with the help of cheap, coal-powered electricity.

Greenwashing alert

Similarly, how much is the reuse and recycling of panels built into their design, if at all? And with many of the world’s fossil fuel companies spending big to acquire pre-cooked renewables companies and burnish their clean energy credentials, we feel it is time to shine a light on corporate greenwashing. The fact we experienced increasing editorial pushback this year from traditional oil, gas and coal producers insisting they should be described as “energy companies” would hint our UP campaign is a much-needed initiative.

Verifiable sustainability

It is essential the clean energy transition is implemented, and fast. It must also be executed in the right way – taking both environmental and social justice into consideration. We produced a webinar on the topic of greenwashing versus real sustainability which also suggested tips on becoming a true green leader. Listen to the recording and download the presentations here.

So much for our efforts. Try as we might to hog the limelight on our own platform, we were somewhat upstaged at Intersolar by the news which emerged of three arrests at the show in connection with historic breaches of the minimum import prices formerly applied to Chinese modules by the EU. The German authorities confirmed two Chinese nationals had been arrested at the show with a third – a top executive at a Chinese PV company – collared nearby.

Claim and counter claim

Those alleged smuggling cases arose out of Chinese producers being forced to look outside their homeland for new markets. With Beijing confirming in Q2 that subsidized PV projects would be subject to auction-set electricity prices in future – as part of an 18-month transition to grid-parity solar energy – such conflicts appeared more likely to recur. This year saw Chinese solar manufacturers ramping up production capacities as fast as state-owned lenders could bankroll them and with blockages in the domestic solar project market, they needed new markets for all those cheap panels.

The potential for intellectual property conflicts such as the legal case opened by Hanwha Q-Cells against rivals in the previous quarter to flare up was highlighted as one of the main takeaways from the SNEC 2019 trade show – alongside advances in panel efficiency, bigger wafers, new cell technologies and consolidation in China.

With Hanwha having expanded its patent infringement legal case to Australia, the company unveiled a new half-cell mono product – the G6 module in its Q.Peak Duo series – in April, pointedly reminding customers its technology was under patent. Not for a want of trying by rivals Jinko and REC, however, who two months later petitioned to repeal the Hanwha patent at the heart of the U.S. part of the unseemly legal scuffle.

Records fall

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Hanwha, of course, was far from unique in pursuing new business and Chinese manufacturer Sunman entered the European market with a German installation of its glass-free PV modules, which are instead fronted by glass-fiber-reinforced plastic.

And with power output rising relentlessly, Trina Solar and Canadian Solar both announced efficiency records in May, the former with a 24.58% efficient n-type, monocrystalline TOPCon cell and Canadian with a 22.28% cast mono device.

Those levels of performance would be blown out of the water if the ultra-high efficiency gallium-arsenide (GaAs) solar cells used for space exploration could have their exorbitant prices brought down to earth. Scientists at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology brought that dream a step closer by developing what they described as a reusable germanium substrate for GaAs production. That news also prompted one of our more impressive headlines of the year – step forward and take a bow Mark Hutchins.

The April-to-June period was a notable one for energy storage, with analysts at GlobalData predicting the market will be worth $13 billion by 2023, thanks to falling prices and the rising need to even out intermittent renewable energy flows in grid networks. According to the experts, solid state batteries won’t be making much of a contribution until the middle of the new decade, but French company Blue Solutions begs to differ and talked to pv magazine about its commercial offering in the cutting-edge storage technology during Intersolar.

Puerto Rico shows the way

The pull of residential storage – which had prompted interesting moves during the previous quarter in an inverter market still dominated by Huawei – continued, and we saw how electric vehicle ownership can help drive down the cost of an household battery as well as examining how Tesla’s store closures enabled it to undercut competitors in the household rooftop market. Talking of the U.S., household PV and electric transport, the solar carport phenomenon highlighted by Charles Thurston appeared to have landed in Europe in the second quarter.

With climate change denier President Trump calling for hurricane-devastated U.S. territory Puerto Rico to look to gas to make its power supply more resilient, governor Ricardo Rosselló instead signed into law a commitment to attain an energy mix composed entirely of clean energy by 2050, re-emphasizing the critical role policy support will play in the energy transition.

What role nuclear? That is the thorny question which divides those concerned with decarbonizing the world as fast as possible as evidence of climate change tipping points becomes more obvious by the day. When we considered the argument made by Stanford professor Mark Zachary Jacobson against the case for nuclear, there was a typically lively response from the pv magazine community. Prof Jacobson contrasted the extensive lead-in time required to commission new nuclear facilities with that of quickly-deployed solar and wind generation assets, and argued the lag between the two would see huge amounts of fossil fuels burnt. He clearly didn’t win you all over.

While the debates raged, however, solar maintained its rapid advance, as illustrated by Wiki-Solar founder Philip Wolfe’s overview of the world’s largest solar fields. That renewable energy genie, it seems, just can’t be put back into the bottle.

Read parts I, III, and IV to complete the picture.

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