Oerlikon discusses path to $0.70/W thin-film PV panels


Oerlikon Solar announced during this spring’s Intersolar in Munich that it had achieved 11% initial power conversion efficiency on its full-size micromorph (a thin-film technology) modules (1.4m2), or 151Watts of initial power. That news, along with unbridled optimism about the future of crystalline silicon (c-Si) exhibited at the recent Intertech-Pira Photovoltaics Summit, provided the backdrop for an interview with Oerlikon’s Chris O’Brien, head of market development, North America.

Micromorph thin-film cell cross-section. (Source: Oerlikon Solar)
Click here to enlarge image

The company says its micromorph technology boosts solar-cell efficiency by adding a second microcrystalline absorber to the amorphous silicon (a-Si) layer, which converts the energy of the red and near-infrared spectrum, facilitating efficiency increases of up to 50%. The company ran a batch of five full-sized modules through its pilot line in Switzerland, using the same manufacturing process and materials already in use by the company’s end-users. The initial 11% efficiency will probably stabilize to ~9.7% on those five modules, O’Brien told SST, but “what was encouraging about the results is that the absolute number was a significant boost over what we’re guaranteeing today [and] the spread among the modules was quite tight [3W]???so that gives us confidence that this is a replicable result.”

Based on data from 10 identified end-users, Oerlikon is on track to meet its roadmap goal whereby end-users will be able to produce panels at a cost of $0.70/W by the end of 2010, O’Brien said???a cost that the company believes will put end-users in a competitive position with respect to the broader renewables market, and would allow delivery of solar-generated electricity at a price of ~$0.09/kW-hr for one large scale project currently being developed in California, “a very competitive price in the large wholesale markets,” O’Brien noted. To meet its roadmap goal, the company is continuing to improve efficiency in its micromorph technology, and improve its manufacturing process (e.g., throughput, yield, etc.). By the end of 2009, after two years selling its end-to-end solution, it will have 600MW cumulative capacity installed at different sites in Europe and Asia, he said.

O’Brien also addressed the points frequently being discussed at technical conferences???i.e., grid parity???and the seeming concurrence among industry insiders of a constant 80%/20% split (or maybe 70%/30%) of market share that favors c-Si over thin-film PV. “There’s so much interest in thin-film technologies in general because they have dramatically simpler manufacturing steps and use much less material when making a module compared with c-Si,” explained O’Brien. For its part, Oerlikon expects thin-film “will grow to at least 25% of market share by 2012,” he said. “There will continue to be a strong market for c-Si, but the fastest growth will be in thin-film technologies because of inherent cost advantages.”

Regarding grid parity, O’Brien thinks it’s a simplistic notion. “Delivering energy value is one part of the equation, but there are many other factors,” he noted, including access to electricity transmission and policies supporting simple grid interconnection. “A pre-requisite to that happening is reaching a value point where solar is competitive effectively against the other peak energy alternatives.”

In summary, O’Brien believes that the overall PV markets will increase and thin-film will need to deliver on its technology roadmap, and he disputes the market share pessimism. “When thin-film gets to $0.70/W, it will get a larger share of the market,” he said, suggesting that there is a very large market for any solar tech that can deliver electricity in the $0.10-0.12/kW-hr range. “We have a clear path to this point,” he added, whereas “it’s not as clear to me that c-Si has a clear pathway to that same operating point on a sustainable basis.” ??? D.V.