I had the pleasure of interacting with Dr. Charlie Gay, president, Applied Solar, Applied Materials Inc., recently. He began by saying that solar power was becoming increasingly affordable.
Dr. Gay said: "Most people don’t realize that solar is already cost effective in a number of locations and applications, and as those uses of solar expand, the scale of the industry grows. As scale increases, cost declines in a highly predictable way for manufactured technologies like PV.
"In 2011, PV electricity is already cost-competitive with traditional sources of residential power in 19 countries, including Italy, Spain and the Caribbean. By 2020, this number can grow to more than 100 countries, representing 98 percent of world population; 99.7 percent of world GDP; 99.2 percent of energy related CO2 emissions; and 99.5 percent of global residential electricity consumption. Areas with plenty of sunshine, such as India, already have costs that are a fraction of what they are elsewhere in the world.
"A common rule in the solar power industry is that for each cumulative doubling of installed photovoltaic (PV) solar power (the type of panel commonly seen on the roofs of homes and businesses) the price of solar modules decreases by 18 percent."
We have now reached a critical inflection point in the cost reduction of solar. Applied continues to drive down cost is to make the manufacturing of solar panels more efficient. The reduced cost is being driven by:
• A decreased cost for silicon, a key ingredient in solar panels.
• Increased capacity in solar panel manufacturing.
• Technology innovation, i.e., the ability to cut thinner wafers at higher yields w/less silicon loss.
Dr. Gay added that the cost of manufacturing solar panels is already reported by some to have fallen below $1 per watt and is capable of continued decreases due to reductions in the cost of silicon, innovative crystal growth techniques, high precision printing technologies operating at 3,000 wafers per hour and many more advances based on increased yield and scientific insights. In 2010, for example, approximately 63 gigawatts of cumulative solar PV had been installed worldwide, with 18 installed last year alone.
"Solar power is already an ideal solution for electric power during peak use times in many locations and will continue to get more cost competitive as the manufacturing learning curve continues –namely, that for each cumulative doubling of installed photovoltaic solar power the price of solar modules decreases by 18 percent."
PV potential for India enormous
According to Dr. Gay, the potential for PV in India is enormous. He said: "Solar PV can make a significant difference in the country. Just as Mahatma Gandhi taught that self-reliance at the village tailor level can be the foundation for the future of an entire industry - so too can India be self-reliant in meeting its own growing energy needs by manufacturing PV.
"Solar PV is the fastest cycle between having a convenient way to add marginal energy generation needs that match a region’s growth needs without having to be slowed by long permitting cycles, issues related to construction delays, or the risk of stranded capital during the time construction is underway. The modularity of PV is its strongest attribute, especially in a sunny place like India with a bright future ahead."
Factors driving affordability of solar power
Dr. Charlie Gay listed some reasons as factors driving the affordability of solar power. These are:
• A significant factor driving the affordability of PV solar panels is the price reduction of silicon - a raw material for the majority of solar cells. Just three years ago silicon used to account for as much as half of the solar module cost. Supply shortages in 2008 drove the price up to more than $300 per kilogram. Since then, silicon supply has caught up with the solar industry’s growth, reducing prices to less than $50 per kilogram. These reductions have helped drive panel costs down more than 50 percent since the first quarter of 2008.
• Advances in solar technology are also pushing down costs and increasing capacity. To produce higher efficiency cells, manufacturers are using selective emitter technology, fine line metallization—such as double printing—or combinations of selective emitter and fine-line metallization to create a more efficient circuitry.
• As silicon wafers get thinner and move much more rapidly through manufacturing plants than those used in typical integrated circuit fabs, improvements have been made in wafer cutting using a simple twist on today’s wire - structured wire that can dramatically increase the speed of transforming blocks of silicon into thin wafers.
• As demand for panels increases, the industry is adapting automation methods from other high-volume manufacturing industries like integrated circuits and automotive production, leap-frogging the pace of development followed by these pioneering examples of mass production. Manufacturing processes are also becoming more complex – growing from 7 to more than 10 steps – and automation helps increase throughput, yield, and lower overall operating costs.
Coming to Applied's Solar Technology Center, this is said to be the largest solar technology research center in the world. Dr. Gay noted: "Our Solar R&D Center at Xi’an is a world class lab and features an accelerated aging and reliability lab, complete crystalline silicon solar pilot line, and can test virtually every kind of solar cell. A truly impressive facility, with more than 400,000 square feet, shows what Applied brings to the solar industry: industrialization and the ability to scale production in order to lower cost, complete with state-of-the-art automation and factory control."
Applied Materials' focus
Applied Materials’ focus is currently on making solar solutions a meaningful contributor to the global energy supply.
Dr. Gay said: "Applied Materials’ primary goal is to help solar manufacturers drive down cost per watt by supplying advanced manufacturing equipment with validated process methods. Simultaneously, we are committed to delivering capabilities that enable increased efficiency and productivity. Also noteworthy is the service, training and fab automation support that is locally available from Applied Materials.
"Recently, Applied Materials, in collaboration with IIT Bombay, established the Chemistry Lab for Electronics and Nanoelectronics (CLEAN) lab that supports the foundational work at our Indian customer’s plants. We have also established engineering and fab management software solutions in our Bangalore and Chennai sites. We have publicly announced several customers including Moser Baer and Birla Surya."
One hopes Applied continues in India in this rich vein!