Does thin film represent the last, best hope for the future of US-based PV manufacturing? Given the country’s large market share of polysilicon production, the growth in crystalline-silicon module making, and the emergence of a nascent concentrator PV sector, that might be an overstatement. But the thin stuff does make up a large chunk of current domestic production (plus the US is number-two globally in that category, behind Malaysia and its First Solar capacity), and a few gigawatts of CdTe, CIGS, and possibly silicon thin film are set to come online in the next few years. With this in mind, the 2nd North American PV Fab Managers Forum, presented by SEMI in conjunction with Intersolar North America, had a distinctly TFPV focus. Here’s a smattering of factoids, newsy bits, and other gleanings from the conference.
The 37th edition of the IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference shattered previous records for participation and presentations, with more than 1800 attendees from 40 different countries and over 1000 oral and poster papers—more information and networking opportunities than any person with half a life could possibly digest. In the final blog on the annual PV techs-travaganza and inadvertent celebration of the summer solstice, I wrap things up with some solar short takes from the voluminous program offerings and the small-but-mighty exhibit hall.
The photovoltaic community lost one of its “unsung heroes” this week, with the passing of Patrick “Pat” Lasswell. The industry veteran died June 28 in a Phoenix, AZ, hospice, of complications from “an anterior communicating artery aneurysm, which had burst and caused massive bleeding into his brain,” suffered four weeks earlier, according to his daughter, Elizabeth Lasswell. He was 65. Here’s a remembrance of the master engineer.
A persistent theme at this year’s IEEE PVSC—and frankly every such conference—was that solar photovoltaic technology exists in a material world. The discovery of new materials, the concoction of better versions of existing materials, the manipulation and processing of materials, and the deployment and measurement of finished, manufactured materials in modular form in a power system all underscore PV’s essential materiality. One young company’s disruptive approach to getting more out of the industry’s über-material—crystalline silicon—garnered a fair amount of attention at the conference.
As the technical elite of the photovoltaics research community shared their latest findings at the IEEE PVSC in Seattle last week, a commercial-scale symbol of the fruits of their labors was taking shape a few miles away. On top of the newly rebranded CenturyLink (ex-Qwest) Event Center nestled between the city’s football/soccer and baseball stadiums, a 787KW (DC) PV power system equipped with 3750 panels featuring Solyndra’s tubular CIGS technology is just weeks away from commissioning. During a lunch break at the conference, I visited the site, which will be the largest rooftop array in the state of Washington when it’s activated in mid-July.
The venue for Alta Devices’ first public presentation about its potentially game-changing single-crystal gallium arsenide thin-film PV could not be more appropriate. The first IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference took place in 1961, and this year’s 37th convocation marks the event’s 50-year anniversary. The Silicon Valley startup’s coming-out party actually transpired in three courses: an appetizing plenary keynote from company cofounder and Caltech professor Harry Atwater, the main course from Alta’s Brendan Kayes, and a rich dessert helping from cofounder and UC Berkeley prof Eli Yablonovitch about the concepts of intense internal and external fluorescence—a key to the “new” device physics behind the firm’s technology.
Four days, five announcements, and more than $2.66 billion later, it’s time to catch one’s breath and reflect on the recent flurry of US Department of Energy conditional loan guarantee awards. As the program approaches its sell-by date of Sept. 30, with the future of the amply-distributed Section 1703 plan in doubt, the latest winners have one thing in common—they all play for Team Solar.
I first heard about Applied Materials’ exit from its SunFab amorphous-silicon turnkey-line business from Xunming Deng, head of Xunlight, whose Toledo, OH-area company I was visiting that July day. That a silicon thin-film guy delivered the news (and one running an outfit having its own “issues,” to boot) made the moment memorable and poignant. The following evening, when I had time to reflect and some liquid solace in my system, I realized that not only did I have a journalistic response to AMAT’s expensive failed endeavor—it was a HUGE story—but I had an emotional reaction as well: it felt like a gut-punch from a company I’d been covering for 20-plus years, which made me sad, disappointed, and yes, angry. Nearly a year later, recent announcements by AMAT thin-film customers T-Solar, Masdar PV, and Best Solar, companies actually manufacturing and deploying those almost six-meter-square modules, have compelled a fresh look at a technology and toolset that I’d given up for comatose, but is apparently conscious.
The intersection of Southern California Edison’s efforts to come up with smarter electrical distribution circuit technologies and its ongoing neighborhood commercial-rooftop solar power push could be seen symbolically in the guts of an open Satcon inverter box at the utility’s testing labs in Pomona, an eastern suburb of Los Angeles. The inverter is one of twenty-some units of various makes, types, and sizes being run through their paces with grid-simulation gear, addressing low-voltage ride-through, fault current, transient overvoltages, and other challenges that must be dealt with in order for inverters to become more than just passive components and help regulate voltage on the future, more renewably powered grid. Satcon is also the brand of choice so far for SCE’s deployment of small utility-scale, distributed PV generators mostly on top of warehouses in the Inland Empire of Southern California.
A tired but happy PV-Tech/Photovoltaics International staff team made its way back to London ground after last week’s Intersolar Europe show. All in all, the event was hugely successful and called some industry naysayers to reason as to the PV sector’s viability in the wake of various market developments.