Solar power shines anew

The U.S government takes a lot of grief, some of it deserved. Criticism might be most pronounced around its industrial policy, where the mantra “we can’t pick winners and losers” was proven to many with the demise of solar start-up Solyndra.

But whatever you think about Solyndra, the government actually got it right when it comes to the next generation of solar technology. It bet on a technology called CIGS. And in an historic moment that went entirely unnoticed in September of last year, CIGS – a “thin film” solar panel material made from copper, indium, gallium and selenide – set the world record for efficiency in converting the sun’s rays into electricity, a key metric of a solar technology’s success. The other metric for success is cost of manufacturing.

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By setting a new record, CIGS beats the reigning world champion of in-market solar technology – multi-crystalline silicon (also known as mc-Si, which has been the foundation of China’s solar rise.

Credit for the success of CIGS belongs entirely to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a research organization funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). NREL recognized the inherent capability of CIGS and developed the key understandings to push efficiency beyond that of mc-Si. The DOE also formed the Photovoltaic Manufacturing Consortium (PVMC) to facilitate the commercialization of CIGS as the future of solar.

But what about manufacturing costs? The higher efficiencies don’t matter if they come at such a high manufacturing cost as to make the solution non-economical.

For the average efficiency achieved in high volume manufacturing (HVM). CIGS started out far below mc-Si but the gap is closing quickly, and CIGS should surpass mc-Si by 2016. For mc-Si, the numbers are higher and the ramp is slower because this technology has been in manufacturing for 30 years. The processes are mature, well understood and most of the bugs have been worked out. There are over 10 mc-Si manufacturers with over one gigawatt (GW) of production capacity and there are thousands of engineers working on improving it further. CIGS, on the other hand, is less mature, with not a single supplier having one GW of capacity, and only hundreds of engineers. This makes the trajectory of the manufacturing CIGS efficiency all the more compelling.

CIGS, like its brethren thin film CdTe, can be made with the lowest cost manufacturing technique known, monolithic integration or MLI. This is the same manufacturing technique that U.S. solar company First Solar uses and which led them to achieve low cost leadership even with low efficiencies. Imagine having the lowest manufacturing cost and the highest manufacturing efficiency.

CIGS is the solar material of the future, and the U.S. government figured that out and directed the resources accordingly.

The U.S. government deserves credit for this major achievement.

But developing the next generation technology is just a first step. Now it’s time for the government to create an environment to support the manufacturing of CIGS technology – at home.

From the energy crisis of the late 1970s through the early 1990s, the U.S. government invested hundreds of millions of dollars in first generation PV R&D, yet the country accounted for only 5.6 percent of global PV production in 2008, down from 30 percent in 1999, precisely during the time when the industry started to scale. Germany, China, Saudi Arabia and others stepped in to scale manufacturing of mc-Si, and as a result they own present production capacity, not the United States. And now that the U.S. government has uncovered the potential to harness the power of advanced solar through CIGS technology, we risk losing out on manufacturing again. China, for example, has acquired several U.S. CIGS companies in the past two years. We now find ourselves facing a repeat of past mistakes.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. President Obama has clearly signaled the importance he places on rebuilding the U.S. manufacturing sector, and in particular advanced manufacturing. The Advanced Manufacturing Partnership he created in 2011 has the specific goal of maintaining “U.S. leadership in the emerging technologies that will create high-quality manufacturing jobs and enhance America’s global competiveness.”

Let’s make sure we deliver on that promise. With solar energy emerging as a major contributor to mainstream energy in coming decades, we can’t afford not to.

Mattson is CEO of Siva Power, a solar technology company based in San Jose, California, that champion CIGS technology.

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