Friday, April 06, 2007

Thin Film Solar Modules

The combination of better materials, the evolution of thin-film transistor technology, and new production methods is establishing thin-film and organic photovoltaics as a hot area for investment. Recent market forecast and analysis carried out by my firm NanoMarkets LC, indicates that revenues from PV modules that use materials such as thin-film amorphous silicon, CIS/CIGS, cadmium telluride, small molecules, polymers or organic dyes will reach $2.3 billion by 2011. Meanwhile, at least one thin-film PV firm is already attempting to raise investment valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars and all this activity may have finally refuted the old complaint against the PV industry that it does not invest enough in R&D.

Why is thin-film PV taking off now? It has been around for more than a decade and until quite recently its main claim to fame has been as the key enabler for solar powered calculators. Today, however, thin-film is benefiting from a "perfect storm" of market drivers. Solar power of all kinds is attracting considerable interest, because of high prices and dire predictions for continued reliance on fossil fuels. And thin-film PV is getting particular attention, in part, because it gets around the current shortage of silicon that the traditional PV market is currently experiencing.

But even perfect storms pass. The shortage of silicon is certainly not a forever kind of thing and it would be no surprise to see some of the current investor enthusiasm for alternative energy begin to fade as oil prices stabilize and more efficient ways of extracting and using fossil fuels are developed.

Nonetheless, even such short-term drivers can have long-term implications. If the current interest in thin-film and organic PV leaves manufacturers flush with cash, then they will be able to invest in new production technology and that will push up all-important conversion efficiencies and reduce costs per watt. Trends have been encouraging in this regard. CIGS, for example, now has efficiencies that are fairly comparable to crystalline silicon PV. Most of the thin-film PV firms we talked with for the NanoMarkets report were claiming recent improvements in production technology that were leading to higher throughputs and higher yields or both. This is critical because one of the reasons that thin-film PV has not taken off in the way that it was first hoped is that the production processes being used for this type of technology have added costs that have all but removed the advantages that thin-film materials were capable of offering intrinsically.

A radically new direction for creating PV is represented by printing. "Printing" in this case, may mean either traditional printing technologies that have been associated with graphics printing for decades or centuries. Or it may mean ink-jet printing. Not all materials lend themselves to this approach, though. It is particularly associated with organic materials. However, at least one firm is pursuing the goal of a silicon ink. Printing will supposedly bring down the cost of PV in a radical new way, ultimately resulting in orders of magnitude and improvements in cost per watt.
Lower costs are likely to play a role in driving thin-film into the numerous markets already served by PV -- everything from power for emergency medical facilities to power for boats. However, when one examines the cost advantages of thin-film PV over traditional PV and balances them against efficiency and material stability, it is hard to conclude that marketers in this space should stress cost alone. Instead, our research in this area suggests that what will drive the thin-film PV market as much as anything else is its unique characteristics in terms of flexibility, weight and ability to integrate into other products.

This helps explain why so many of the thin-film PV firms are focused on building products into which PV is integrated. Not only are the trinity of flexibility, weight and integration-ease likely to be key performance factors required by the integrated building products market, but the potential size of this market is large in terms energy consumption, which translates into many square feet of solar modules sold. Similar considerations also apply to the use of thin-film PV in the military and emergency systems market. Light, flexible and easily integrated product attributes work well here too. But the target market is much lower than for the integrated building market. This may be offset somewhat by the value placed on PV for these products and the willingness of customers to pay a premium for products.

The most controversial issue is whether PV will be able to address the burgeoning need for power in mobile electronics. As more and more features are added to cell phones and as end users expect notebook computers to offer about the same performance levels as desktop computers, improvements in energy density expected from the standard lithium-ion batteries now used ubiquitously in mobile devices are being strained. PV battery boosters and chargers therefore now look like an attractive addressable market and could only be built from thin-film or organic materials, not from crystalline silicon. Thin-film battery boosters and chargers have existed for some time, but have tended to be expensive low-volume products aimed at the emergency medical, military and similar markets. What appears to be needed now is a very low cost product that might even be integrated directly into cell phones, for example.


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