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Solar panels: prices and future technology

Having a look at efficiency improvement of crystalline silicone solar panels in recent years, it can be noticed that it is successively approaching the theoretical limit of 29%.

This should be reached around 2030 by improving mainly: the metallization process, emitter passivation process and material quality.

Solar panels efficiency is not the only aspect affecting levelized cost of energy though. Important fields are still: cell-to-modules losses reduction, module bifaciality, tracking and concentration.

Efficiency versus price

Do you wonder if wafer-based technology will be completely replaced by second generation (thin film) or third generation (multi-junction, organic solar cells, etc.) solar panels? You may be surprised but probably not!

There are module technologies with higher efficiencies than theoretical limit of Si-based PV since they use concentration (like 46% achieved by Soitec/Fraunhofer) or multi-junction cells (like 38,8% of Boeing/Spectrolab). This type of technologies have a very high module cost.

Some third-generation technologies enable a very low module manufacturing cost (i.e. OPV or DSCC) but their module stability is low and increases BOS-cost. The limitation can be also toxicity of some elements used in module manufacturing (like cadmium in CdTe) or current silicon price – i.e. a-Si technology due to its low specific silicon consumption is competitive only when price of silicone is higher than 20 USD/kg.

Elements abundance

Elements abundance also determines future development of PV technologies. According to some scenarios, worldwide annual production will become an issue when considering PV deployment targets as high as a 50% share of total electricity production by 2050.

Apart from silicon, silver usage (for metal contacts) can be challenging, although there are many initiatives trying to replace it with different, cheaper elements. Availability of Ga, Te, Se and In is also limited.

From the point of view of availability of the required raw materials, emerging thin-film technologies, such as Perovskite, CZTS and quantum dot-based solar cells, can be suitable for large-scale deployment of PV with the target of reaching 50% share of PV in total electricity production by 2050. 

Material combination

When summing up all three generations of solar panels, regarding their maturity, manufacturing process, costs, efficiency potential and the availability of the required raw materials, it is very likely that the first-generation c-Si will not be replaced by other technologies so easily.

Apart from pushing c-Si technology to the theoretical limit by further improvement of material quality, cell designs and surface passivation technologies, experts predict modification of c-Si technology in the closest future.

This would take place by combining both materials and technologies. Silicone modules will contain more and more other components besides silicon in order to minimize cell-to-module losses at an efficiency level. Some tricks such as increasing the spacing in between the solar cells and collecting the additional reflected light in the spaces in monofacial mode or using bifaciality may be used in order to reduce these losses.

Also, there is still a large potential of new anti-reflection coatings and other light-trapping techniques, adjustment of the light spectrum as well as combining silicon with other materials with different band gaps (like in tandem cells).

Of couse, we never know if new material (like graphen and Perovskite) will not be discover and revolutionize completely the PV world.

based on Dr Joris Libal and Dr Radovan Kopecek article Limit for industrial c-Si solar cells reached in 2030: what next?

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