“Worldwide installation of PV systems has been growing at a rapid pace in recent years, driven by a combination of government incentives and popular support for clean energy,” says the EPRI whitepaper Solar Photovoltaics: Status, Costs & Trends. “A key goal of the incentive programmes has been to drive down costs by increasing production volume.”
Solar PV costs have declined substantially and “they show no signs of slackening the pace” beyond short periods of silicon shortages and economic downturns, and “many experts are predicting a blossoming of the US market over the next few years, as installed prices reach substantial parity with conventional alternatives and the true potential of the domestic solar resource is better appreciated.”
“Large-scale commercial PV and central-station utility-scale PV will most likely become the dominant growth market,” it concludes. “However, the relatively high value of displaced retail kWh will probably stimulate ongoing strong growth of the residential and commercial markets as well.”
Solar PV history, status, trends
EPRI addresses the history, status and trends of flat-plate solar PV technologies in both crystalline silicon and thin-film forms. Perspectives are provided on the cost and performance, as well as the materials used for producing solar PV modules. It describes the major milestones and trends in solar PV system development since the 1970s and looks forward over the next 30 years.
Trends suggest that utilities will have a significant role both in distributed and in utility-scale solar PV applications, and the paper raises the question of whether the electric industry is ready for solar energy.
Solar PV technology was initially developed for the space programme in the 1950s to power satellites and was boosted by the energy crisis in the 1970s. Over the past 30 years, there has been a 95% decrease in solar PV module costs and a concurrent doubling in the typical solar PV system energy conversion efficiency.
Solar PV to play increasingly important role
“With today’s growing environmental concerns, ongoing PV technology improvements and cost reductions, solar PV appears to be entering an era in which it will play an increasingly important role in meeting the world’s energy needs,” it explains. In 2008, annual global solar PV module sales exceeded 5.4 GW and are expected to install a similar total in 2009 which translates into a “billions-of-dollars-per-year business for both module production and system installation.”
Favourable policies and subsidies in Germany, Japan, Spain and the USA “have stimulated the PV market and pushed annual growth to average 52% over the years 2003–2008,” and deployment growth of solar power now exceeds wind power and it is the fastest growing form of electricity generation on a percentage basis.
Solar technologies will compete
“The PV market is destined to remain a vigorously contested horse race for a decade or two at least” as the various technologies vie for market dominance. “In the much longer term, there also are likely to be other entrants in that race, but the extreme difficulties involved in bringing brand-new PV technologies from the laboratory to the factory floor virtually guarantee that the leaders for the next 10 years or so will continue to include only crystalline silicon, amorphous silicon, CdTe, and CIGS.”
“PV technology is still evolving and has not reached mature commercial status” and, without subsidies, it is currently best suited economically for small, off-grid installations and other applications where solar PV can often provide a service at the lowest cost, the paper states.
“Large-scale bulk-power PV facilities are not now competitive with other intermediate and peaking supply technologies so it would seem unlikely for many large centralised PV facilities to be built in the near future, outside of markets where they are specifically incentivized by policy-driven subsidies, such as in Germany, Spain, Portugal and several other European Union countries.”
There is a substantial time lag of 20 years between laboratory efficiency achievements and their appearance in flat-plate commercial solar PV products, which underscores the difficulty of scaling up laboratory cells to commercial products. Also, nearly all solar thin-film technologies have “substantial room for performance improvement,” it adds.
Of the four main applications for solar PV systems (grid-connected centralised power stations, grid-connected distributed PV, off-grid building power systems, off-grid PV-DC loads), off-grid systems have become a minor fraction of the global solar PV market and the trend is shifting to grid-connected solar PV.
The Electric Power Research Institute conducts research and development relating to the generation, delivery and use of electricity.