Saturday, August 20, 2011

Good Enough is Better than Best for Solar Modules
In a race to improve margins and expand market share, solar manufacturers are seeking to jettison all unnecessary costs from their photovoltaic (PV) modules. To date, they’ve been more successful in trimming costs from active PV materials – helped, in part, by declining silicon prices. But non-active materials such as frontsheets, encapsulants, and backsheets have proven to be more stubborn. These non-active materials contribute between 25% and 40% to overall module costs, depending on the type of module, and that percentage will grow as silicon prices continue to decline.

In a new report titled, “Critical to Quality: Illuminating Drivers for Change in Solar Non-Active Materials,” Lux Research surveys the field of incumbent and emerging non-active material technologies for flat plate PV modules, and identifies the most realistic and viable opportunities for minimizing trade-offs between cost and performance.

“Module-makers confront risks whether they explore unfamiliar new materials themselves, or let competitors search for a better solution and find it first,” said Jason Eckstein, a Lux Analyst and the report’s lead author. “The guiding principle is to find new non-active materials that minimize costs while meeting the minimum 25-year threshold for module lifetimes.”

In preparing its report, Lux Research surveyed 30 manufacturers of crystalline silicon (x-Si), rigid thin film, and flexible thin film PV modules, and built detailed analytical models to identify the most attractive development opportunities for non-active materials based on cost vs. performance tradeoffs, among others. Among its findings:
  • Float glass will edge into rolled glass’ traditional dominance over x-Si modules. Historically, rolled, patterned glass frontsheets have dominated the x-Si module market due to higher transmittance over float glass alternatives more typically used in thin-film modules. However, even as rolled glass has increased in price, suppliers have begun offering float glasses of equal quality, and x-Si players like SolarWorld have begun incorporating the cheaper alternative into their modules.
  • Higher efficiency modules to expand use of anti-reflective (AR) coatings. To date, AR-coated glass has seen low adoption rates. By reducing reflectance from the frontsheet, however, AR coatings directly boost out-of-the-box efficiency for solar modules. In fact, based on current pricing, AR-coated glass offers a significant value for higher efficiency crystalline silicon and CIGS technologies at a cost less than $4/m2, which will fuel higher adoption in the future.
  • Despite claims of enhanced performance from new encapsulants, adoption is unlikely. Several suppliers have announced new encapsulant materials, claiming higher performance than ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), the industry standard. But EVA is a low cost solution that addresses existing performance requirements for every market segment. Overall, module-makers will remain adverse to new encapsulants that require a change to their manufacturing processes, even given the incentive of more durable or efficient modules.
Lux Research
Press Release dated June 1, 2011

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