The costs of solar panels are dropping quickly. The decline in solar prices is compelling manufacturers to find ways to cut costs and improve the amount of power solar cells can convert from sunlight. The company First Solar has just topped the world record with its latest efficiency developments. On Tuesday, the company proudly displayed a 17.3 percent efficient solar cell.
The test cell has broken the previous record of 16.7 percent for a solar cell comprised of cadmium-telluride set by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2001. The new record is important because it illustrates that solar panels made with cadmium-telluride cells can endure a longer life in the market than originally expected.
When it comes to how much power a panel of a given size can generate – more power equals higher efficiencies. There is a set cost and amount of time for creating each panel, and First Solar’s technology makes a panel is less than 2.5 hours. If the company manufactures each panel with a greater power rating (in watts), then that panel’s cost-per-watt is lower.
First Solar has held the title of the lowest-cost solar panel manufacturer in the industry for quite some time. Producing solar panels on the cheap is a major advantage for First Solar, especially considering that its solar panels are not the most efficient on the market. During the first quarter of 2011, the company constructed solar panels with 11.7 percent efficiency at the cost of $0.75 per watt.
Most solar panels on the market are made with silicon and usually have higher efficiencies than First Solar’s, which are not made with silicon. Silicon panels cost more to manufacture, but also demand higher prices.
So what is the most efficient silicon solar panel on the market today? SunPower recently launched a 20 percent panel that contains cells that can perform at 22.4 percent efficiency. When the cells are assembled into a panel, they don’t all act uniformly, which is the cause of the lower panel efficiency figure. Not to mention, the panel efficiency includes the frame area where no cells are located.
Considering that silicon solar panel prices have fallen by more than half in the past two years, silicon solar panel manufacturers are excited to improve their products’ efficiencies. Just in the past six weeks, prices have dropped by 15 percent, according to IMS Research. In the first quarter of 2011, the typical price was close to $1.80, and now it’s fallen below $1.40 per watt.
Two recent developments have contributed to the decline in prices: the weakening of government subsidies in the world’s two largest markets, Germany and Italy, and the subsequent piling up of solar panels because of the cut in demand. The cuts in subsidies have required solar panel manufacturers along with their component suppliers to lower the price of their goods. If they didn’t lower prices, their customers wouldn’t see the value in investing in solar or building solar energy projects.
Solar panel creators have always understood the need to improve the efficiency of their products. Now, the falling prices have created an urgency that pushes them to do it as fast as possible. Numerous large solar cell and panel makers have looked to technologies such as the silicon ink by Innovalight. The silicon ink has allowed Innovalight customers to improve their cells’ efficiencies by roughly 0.8 percentage point or more. This gained that attention of DuPont, which has recently purchased Innovalight for an undisclosed price.
Pushing the limits of efficiencies in cells made by its production equipment is essential for First Solar to remain in the competition in the future. Solar cell records show an attainable target, but don’t communicate the length of time it may take for the manufacturer to reach that efficiency at scale. The records show the best their holders can produce at a given time, not necessarily what they can produce consistently in high volumes.
By the end of 2014, First Solar expects to increase the efficiency of its market-ready solar panels from 11.7 percent up to 14.5 percent.