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Cost Of Solar Set To Plummet With New 44.7% Efficiency Record

A research team in Europe has achieved a world record-setting solar conversion efficiency of 44.7 percent, and assuming that higher efficiency translates into lower costs, it’s yet another indicator that we’re only at the beginning of a long, steep decline in the cost of solar power.

Solar (and wind, for that matter), is already competitive with or cheaper than coal in an increasing number of US markets, and with solar cell efficiency edging thisclose to the 50 percent efficiency mark, we’re expecting to see those trend lines grow farther and faster in the near future.

A 44.7% Solar Conversion Efficiency Record

With our usual caveat that there are a number of different solar technologies out there and different ways of measuring conversion efficiency, let’s look at the new record-setting claim.

Solar cell sets new conversion efficiency record.

Record-setting solar cell courtesy of Fraunhofer.

The research partnership consists of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE, top cutting edge semiconductor manufacturer Soitec, the French R&D organization CEA-Leti, and the Helmholtz Center Berlin.

The basic technology is a multi-junction solar cell, meaning a cell made up of layers of different semiconductor materials in order to capture the widest possible range of the solar spectrum. Multi-junction cells are typically used in concentrator solar systems.

The group of materials used in this particular cell is the III-V group, which refers to their position on the Periodic Table.

The new record is a significant notch up from the team’s previous achievement of 43.6 percent, set just a few months ago. It looks like Soitec made a key contribution in the form of a new bonding process. Fraunhofer ISE Department Head Frank Dimroth explains:

This four-junction solar cell contains our collected expertise in this area over many years. Besides improved materials and optimization of the structure, a new procedure called wafer bonding plays a central role. With this technology, we are able to connect two semiconductor crystals, which otherwise cannot be grown on top of each other with high crystal quality.

The Fraunhofer team better not relax on their laurels, though. They leapfrogged over Sharp, which announced a triple junction cell with 44.4 percent efficiency just last summer, but that doesn’t leave them much breathing room.

Let’s also note for the record that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has been working with the company Amonix to develop a standard for measuring real-world conversion efficiency over a period of time for installed concentrator solar cell systems. Under those calculations, Amonix staked its flag on the world record for CPV systems earlier this year at 35.9 percent.

A Solar Cell In Every Pot

Getting back to the falling cost of solar power, we’ve come a long way from the days when there were solar cells in space and solar cells on your off-the-grid hippie neighbor’s roof, with nothing in between.

Here in the US, aside from supporting improvements in solar cell efficiency the Obama Administration has also been chipping away at the “soft costs” of installed solar power, which can account for about half the cost of a typical array.

Solar energy is now so ubiquitous that mainstream home builders such as KB Home are now offering models that seamlessly integrate solar power with home EV charging, too.

Cost Of Solar Set To Plummet With New 44.7% Efficiency Record was originally published on: CleanTechnica. To read more from CleanTechnica, join over 30,000 other subscribers: RSS | Facebook | Twitter.

Tina Casey's picture

Thank Tina for the Post!

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 27, 2013 6:51 pm GMT

Tina, haven’t we seen enough of the equation of solar panel prices to solar power prices?

Even with panels extracting maximum electrical energy in accordance with the Shockley-Queisser limit applied to multi-junction cells (about 68% of collected energy) the cost of PV panels makes up 1/3 of the cost of a solar system. And entire system costs are a negligible component compared to land use and transmission costs, as well as costs related to the construction of CO2-emitting gas peaker plants for backing up this meager, variable, and non-dispatchable source.

The levelized cost of solar power is projected to remain 44% higher than coal through 2018, so it’s going to take a lot more than cheap panels for solar to escape niche status in the world’s energy picture.

Alistair Newbould's picture
Alistair Newbould on Sep 29, 2013 8:32 am GMT

By “all flavours” do you mean passive solar heating, solar water heating, molten salt and PV. Any others?

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Oct 2, 2013 4:33 am GMT

It is important to note that these high efficiency solar cells (anything over about 22%) are made not from silicon, but from expensive exotic materials like galium-arsenide (so called III-V, to distinguish them from silicon, which has 4 electrons in the outer shell).  These materials cost over 2 orders of magnitude more per square inch than silicon.  Hence they are only used in expensive space probes, or in high-concentration CPV solar designs (>500x concentration and 2-axis tracking).

Thus far, CPV has achieved very poor market share against flat-plate fixed tilt PV, and CPV is even small compared to thermal CSP.  According to the SEIA, in 2012, the US installed about 4 GWatt of solar, and only 30 MW of this was CPV. 

It is somewhat encouraging that PV giant SunPower has enough faith in CPV that they have introduced a low concentration (7x) product called C7, but it use silicon cells instead of expensive III-V cells, yielding a module efficiency of 20%, and does not use 2-axis tracking.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Oct 2, 2013 5:43 am GMT

Note that your personal energy cost forecast does not match well with with data collected from the utility industry, via the IEA.  As Bob mentions upthread, solar costs are forecast to stay well above that of nuclear in the US, and that is before energy storage costs are added.  Also, the US has a lot of experience with nuclear decommissioning, and the cost is built into the cost of nuclear power. 

The most likely outcome is that low capacity-factor variable renewables will grow in market share, but energy storage will not.  Those regions that deploy renewables aggressively will reach only about 20-30% penetration, and they will lock-in dangerous and dirty fossil fuel backup for the remaining 70-80% of their power.  

Other regions will follow France’s example, and get 80% of their power from safe, clean nuclear power.  They will give the next generation the gift of clean air and cheap power from long-lived power plants.

Spec Lawyer's picture
Spec Lawyer on Oct 4, 2013 2:22 am GMT

The PV panels I have on my roof already produce more power than I need for both my home and my car but even more efficient panels would be great.  

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