In part two of this series of articles, we looked at some of the equipment manufacturers active in the PV sector. But what about materials' developers?
According to Tracy Anderson, director of 3M's Renewable Energy Division, “Our laboratories are focused on developing new products to help with cost control. We have a full portfolio of these solutions, including 3M Scotchshield Film backsheets for c-Si modules. We are expanding in that area to have backsheets that are able to drive down cost and increase efficiency for that market.
“We also have a wide variety of tapes that are used in making solar panels. These tapes are very compatible with automation, unlike liquid adhesives, which always require some sort of cure times or other special handling. These tapes are used on everything from bonding applications to electrical contact applications within the devices,” he adds.
Some 3M materials help drive cost out of the modules in ways not readily thought of, such as eliminating the need for aluminium frames. “The frame provides the stiffness to the module. If you eliminate the frame, it may reduce the production cost, but also reduces the module integrity, which is not good. We are looking at very innovative and novel types of racking systems in combination with new module mounting materials. In concert, this could eliminate the aluminium frame without affecting the integrity of the modules,” Anderson says.
3M is also working in the area of unique barrier films. “The CIGS industry has been working toward very high efficiency modules and we have been working with this market to provide the enabling frontside film that will replace glass and allow them to make flexible modules,” Anderson says. “3M's Ultra Barrier Film has special properties so it does not let moisture in and yet still has good transmission characteristics for light.”
The Heraeus' Photovoltaic Business Unit is also well known for developing front and back-side silver pastes for crystalline solar cells. Along with their silver paste materials, the company is also expanding into other areas such as infrared emitters Andy London, global manager for the Photovoltaic Business Unit says.
Heraeus introduced its SOL205 paste introduced at APVIA 2011 in Singapore, in November. It is said to have approximately 30% less silver content and provides a higher coverage area for reduced paste usage per cell than the typical commercially available pastes. Its SOL 200 series of pastes is designed for the back-side contacts of crystalline solar cells. The reduced silver content and low consumption lowers acquisition and production costs for customers. All Heraeus pastes are cadmium-free to improve environmental friendliness.
Heraeus precious metals and technology group, also presented their latest product developments for the various generations of solar cells at the 26th European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference and Exhibition (PVSEC) in Hamburg this past September. Products on display included infrared emitters. Specialty emitters from UV to infrared, make solar cells more efficient by testing reliable and reproducible light sources to test solar cells by mimicking the full light spectrum.
Infrared emitters are part of a project sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Four partners are working on system designs with the aim of researching a new manufacturing process for CIGS semiconductor layers that hopes to attain the highest levels of module efficiency. The partner for heating technology is the speciality light sources business group (Heraeus Noblelight), which has long experience in infrared heating technology.
3M's Anderson notes that the current upheavals seen in the solar industry are simply evolution. “Looking back at the automotive industry is a good example. There were many automotive makers in the beginning, but only those that could cost-effectively mass market survived. After you have the market, you can branch out into specials for select audiences, but you need to get that market share first,” he says.
According to Brooks Herring, vp of communications and operations for Solar Frontier, Japanese manufacturers are again playing to their strengths, and Solar Frontier comes from this background, with more than three decades of solar PV R&D and the key advantage of early commitment to CIS technology. “2011 has been a year of foundation-building to ensure success in this hyper-competitive market in the long-term. We have shown that we have the capability to ramp up our CIS technology to Gigawatt-scale in a matter of months as we did at the Kunitomi plant, and are positioned for industry leadership by combining this expertise with the deep energy industry insight of our parent company's 110 years of experience,” he adds.
Dr. Thomas Christmann, director Business Development for Bosch Rexroth Semiconductor and Solar Group gives us a sneak peek into the future. Bosch is also entering the solar energy market as a manufacturer of solar cells. They will soon manufacture their own high performance silicon and CIGS thin-film solar cells. Both are expected to enter the market very soon.
Kevin Chen, chief marketing officer for Applied Materials (AMAT) Energy and Environmental Solutions segment reminds us that beyond solar panel manufacturing, there is an entire ecosystem of energy storage and transmission that needs to be in place in the future to help solar generation expand. “There is much innovation going on and many growth opportunities for companies operating in different parts of the value chain. It's a very exciting time to be in the industry,” he says.
According to Oerlikon's Chris O'Brien, “Developers are likely to re-think their technology selection strategy as markets in the U.S. and elsewhere make the transition to policy regimes where incentive levels are reduced and competitive LCOE [levelised cost of energy] becomes a more heavily weighted factor for end customers. The expansion of PV markets in sunbelt regions around the world will play to the strengths of thin-film PV technology, even more so as Oerlikon Solar and other technology leaders continue to progress on their roadmaps to further reduce costs and increase performance".
The support structure that feeds into the success of all areas of renewable power manufacturing is the backbone that creates success or failure for solar manufacturers.
To succeed in the solar market, any manufacturer must look at who they choose to partner with for support and answer the question: “What benefits does this company, product, material or service provide?”
It must do one or more of these things:
- Reduce manufacturing cost (reduce production time, labour and human error);
- Add value to the end product (increase efficiency/ lower cost-per-watt); and
- Increase the actual sales/market base (lower product cost, lower installation cost).
The preferred situation is that any material, product or service will answer all three needs. This will become more important as the solar industry continues to mature. Those that follow a consistently good business plan will succeed. Those that do not, simply won't.
This is a fact of life for all manufacturing. The solar industry is no different.
About: Joyce Laird has an extensive background writing about the electronics industry; semiconductor development, R&D, wafer/foundry/IP and device integration into high density circuit designs.