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September 24th, 2009

Cutting PV costs, Part 2: Process improvements vs. science breakthroughs

Published on September 24th, 2009 | By: pwray@ceramics.org

Credit: 1366 Technologies

Yesterday we posted a Technology Review video interview with Emanuel Sachs (1366 Technologies’ chief technology officer and professor of mechanical engineering at MIT) in which he and Craig Lund (1366’s director of business development) discuss some of the new technologies the company is incorporating into PV panels.

Sachs did what I think is a very important and (shorter) follow-up video in which he argues that 1) creating efficiencies on the materials processing and manufacturing side of photovoltaics is currently playing a bigger role than scientific discoveries in getting solar power to the point where it is competitive with traditional energy sources, and 2) at the point of parity, battery/energy storage technology becomes the dominant concern.

Sachs says, basically, that at any given point, when a PV panel is manufactured it is an amalgam of several recent processing advances, and the current development of photovoltaics is akin to the stages that occurred with microelectronics.

“Today’s silicon device uses lots of lots of different innovations that have taken place. A company doesn’t need to invent the entire process sequence. They can grab what it needs and then, maybe, add something special that will distinguish them in the process space. . . This is a breakthrough in scale of production. That’s what PV is about because you have to cover huge portions of the earth’s surface . . . These are breakthroughs, too. These are breakthroughs in manufacturing and production. People in this country are not accustomed to thinking of these as breakthroughs. Other parts of the world have a very different view because they understand where the money is made . . . It’s fine to pursue [science breakthroughs] but don’t misunderstand what we already have.” [emphasis added]

That’s a pretty profound argument that really challenges those of us who tend to be obsessive about the science innovations versus improving the details related to how the feedstock is prepared and the then brought together as a panel.

I thought the chart in the video would be useful to look at, and Craig Lund kindly provided the version that appears above. Click on the image to enlarge it.

ADDING: I later checked with Lund regarding Sachs’ view about where the trend indicated in the chart was heading. He informed me that Sachs believes the accumulation of manufacturing innovations will continue to drive down the cost of crystalline silicon PV until 2025 when the cost of solar generated electricity will be significantly cheaper than coal.



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