Monday, November 9, 2009

Solar power at the cost of coal?

Among the recent awardees of DoE funding for transformational energy projects is a small company, 1366 Technologies, who is making a mighty big claim. That photovoltaic panels will soon become the largest manufacturing industry in the history of mankind. This is due to development of photovoltaic panels costing the same as coal fired power plants. What's held the solar electricity industry from broad acceptance is cost competitiveness against dirty old coal. Coal has a zillion problems with it that harm our health and the environment around us, any sane society would have banned coal use long ago, but it's just as insane to ban a critical technology for which there's no replacement no matter how bad is the technology. Renewable energy like wind and solar have held a lot of interest but the cost has kept them from being widely adopted. Fortunately the cost of both is dropping, and 1366 Technologies points to a cost reduction curve which predicts that by 2020 photovoltaics will have a price equal to the price of coal fired power plants.

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1366 Technologies has developed technology to decrease cost of production while increasing solar panel efficiency. Over time decreasing the cost while increasing efficiency will improve the cost per kilowatt figures to enable greater adoption.

Their website describes two technologies. The "Self Aligned Cell" textures the surface of a photovoltaic cell to improve efficiency. The texturing process creates a geometrically optimized cell surface for better light capture and trapping. The "Light Capturing Busbar" is an improvement on the wires embedded in photovoltaic cells that allows energy capture from the cell area behind the wires. The grooved surface of the busbar reflects light in a way that it bounces around inside and is absorbed by the photovoltaic cell, unlike conventional busbars that simply block light. Together these allow multi-crystalline cells that typically have lower cost but also lower efficiency to have efficiency equal to monocrystaline cells. A third technology, Direct Wafer, is mentioned in some press releases without being described on the website.

The honeycomb texturing technique by itself, increases overall solar cell efficiency by 1 percent, while making the metallization lines thinner boosts efficiency by another 1 percent or more, according to announcements released by 1366.

“The way we see it, the right technology and materials are available now to help PV reach grid parity, but the challenge for our industry is to simultaneously deliver high efficiencies and low costs,” said Dr. Emanuel Sachs, co-founder and chief technology officer for 1366 Technologies. “Our Self-Aligned Cell architecture addresses this challenge head-on. We believe our technologies, combined with further advancements in manufacturing, will help solar power satisfy 7% of global electricity demand over the next decade and inspire one of the largest manufacturing revolutions in history.”

In Feb 2009 they were awarded an 18-month $3 million subcontract with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for the “Self-Aligned Cell: Scaling up manufacture of a cost effective cell architecture for multi-crystalline silicon photovoltaics” Project. 1366 Technologies will use the Solar America Initiative Agreement funds to further develop its Self-Aligned Cell technology which allows cost-effective, scalable manufacturing of multi-crystalline solar cells. In October 2009 they were awarded four million dollars in federal funding from the Advanced Research Projects Agency -- Energy (ARPA-E) of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). This funding is to go towards development of their Direct Wafer technology which promises to solve the wafering problem with a breakthrough manufacturing solution that is compatible with today's supply chain. "This funding will allow us to accelerate the development and scaling of Direct Wafer, which will have strong implications for the competitiveness of the U.S. PV industry and provide a basis for future economic growth and jobs" said Frank van Mierlo, co-founder and president of 1366 Technologies.

The company's goal is to make and sell texturing and metallization machines that solar cell manufacturers can incorporate into their existing assembly lines. Indeed in July 2009 they received their first order to build a prototype machine. Machine construction is expected to require 10 months. If all goes well this will open the doors to further machine sales.

1366 Technologies Signs Solar America Initiative Agreement with U.S. Department of Energy

1366 Technologies Awarded Four Million in ARPA-E Funding

MIT Spinoff, 1366 Technologies, Reaches Efficiency Goal, Shines More Light on its Solar Cell Design

1366 Technologies scores its first order

More-Powerful Solar Cells: A new solar cell is 27 percent more efficient without being more expensive to make.

Making solar cheaper than coal


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