Berlin: New ways to capture energy from the sun are unlikely to challenge the dominance of photovoltaic panels made from silicon in the coming years, said Eicke Weber, head of a German solar energy research group.
“Silicon-based photovoltaic is the most efficient system,” the Freiburg-based Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems physicist said in an interview. “And there’s a lot of exciting research that can be done to improve it,” said Weber.
Bright future: Schott Solar AG, the German maker of photovoltaic solar electric products, calls silicon-based panels its ‘flagship’ product.
Schott Solar AG, the German manufacturer that’s going public in what may be Europe’s biggest initial stock offering this quarter, calls these panels its “flagship” product. Continuing dependence on silicon as the main material for photovoltaic devices, the workhorse of the solar industry, probably will hold back declines in panel prices, said Bozena Jankowska, a London-based fund manager at Allianz RCM.
“Silicon costs about $400 to $450 a kg (Rs18,000-20,250) on the spot market,” said Jankowska, who manages £1.5 billion of assets in the Global EcoTrends Fund. There’s greater potential with non-silicon technologies, she said. “Thin film is a very good large-scale application.”
Researchers such as Marco Baldo at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are developing non-silicon-based devices that use solar energy by either concentrating it to heat a liquid that runs turbines, or by generating a current with so-called thin films. Like photovoltaic cells, thin films turn the sun’s energy directly into current, though are less expensive to produce and can be bent to fit curved surfaces.
Researchers are trying to boost the efficiency of silicon-based technology by using material that captures a greater range of light and by concentrating light on to panels. The most efficient silicon system created under laboratory conditions harnessed 40% of the incoming energy, while most panels operating on roofs have efficiency ratings of less than 20%, Weber said. Efficiency is measured by the amount of the sun’s radiation that is converted into electrical energy.
The “high” price of silicon is the result of few manufacturers and a fast growing demand for the material, also used to make computer chips, said Fraunhofer’s Weber. With a rise in production, supply will increase and help lower the price, he added. At the moment about 40,000 tonnes of “super-clean” silicon, or computer-chip quality, are made annually.
The silicon supply shortage in the solar industry will soon be a “thing of the past,” said Carsten Koernig, who heads the Berlin-based BSW German solar lobby group. Previously, manufacturers made silicon primarily for computer chipmakers such as Infineon AG and Intel Corp. and “had their fingers burned” after demand for chips fell, he said.
Costs for photovoltaic silicon panels will decline between 10% and 15% annually in the coming years, helped by cheaper prices, Christoph Koch, chief financial officer of solar-power producer S.A.G. Solarstrom AG, estimated.
Q-Cells AG, a solar panel maker based in Thalheim, Germany, doesn’t expect the price for silicon to decline until possibly late next year, said Stefan Lissner, who heads the firm’s investor relations department.
Infineon spokesman Guenter Gaugler declined to comment on the company’s expectations for silicon prices. Infineon is Europe’s second largest maker of semiconductors.
“Many companies have announced they want to start producing silicon, but there will probably be delays, and demand remains high,” Lissner said. “Still, we’ve seen a downward trend in the price of the contracts we’re making now.”
Regardless of the price, the strategy of Q-Cells, the world’s largest solar panel maker, depends on silicon-based photovoltaic systems, confirmation of Fraunhofer’s prediction, Lissner said.
Jeremy Naylor in London contributed to this story.