February 24, 2009
Cheaper Concentrating Solar For Photovoltaics

While the bulk of concentrating solar now in use is for solar thermal steam electric power generation it is not the only use of concentrating solar. Highly concentrated light shined on photovoltaic (PV) materials greatly lowers the amount of PV needed. If the concentrator costs less than PV for the same area then concentrator plus PV can be a cheaper way to go. A Canadian company, Morgan Solar, claims to have a better way to concentrate sunlight for PV solar.

A couple of years ago, Nicolas's brother John Paul Morgan came up with the idea of a solid-state solar concentrator system: a flat, thin acrylic optic that traps light and guides it toward its center. Embedded in the center of Morgan Solar's concentrator is a secondary, round optic made of glass. With a flat bottom and convex, mirrored top, the optic receives the incoming barrage of light at a concentration of about 50 suns and amplifies it to nearly 1,000 suns before bending the light through a 90-degree angle.

Unlike other concentrators, the light doesn't leave the optic before striking a solar cell. Instead, a high-efficiency cell about the size of an infant's thumbnail is bonded directly to the center bottom of the glass optic, where it absorbs the downward-bent light. There's no air gap, and there's no chance of fragile components being knocked out of alignment.

They think they can compete with thin film solar on costs by 2011.

Some business and engineering decisions must still be made, but he expects that the company will be able to build its system for less than $1 per watt by 2011--"and with some vertical integration, considerably less." This would lead to a product close to 30 percent efficient at costs competitive with thin film.

FirstSolar is the market leader for low cost thin film photovoltaics. In Q1 2008 FirstSolar claimed a manufacturing cost of $1.14 per watt. They aren't sitting still. By 3Q 2008 they were claiming $1.08 per watt. Their cost will be even lower in 2 years time. Morgan Solar needs to come in under $1 per watt to compete.

Concentrating solar for PV is best used with higher priced PV that has higher conversion efficiencies. The higher cost for materials with higher conversion efficiency does not matter because the amount of PV used is very small. Concentrating solar's ability to compete might end up hinging on how much conversion efficiencies improve. A doubling of conversion efficiency would probably cut Morgan's cost in half. More than a doubling in PV conversion efficiency might be possible.

Update: First Solar claims a manufacturing cost below $1 per watt for 4Q 2008.

TEMPE, Ariz.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Feb. 24, 2009-- First Solar, Inc. (Nasdaq: FSLR) today announced it reduced its manufacturing cost for solar modules in the fourth quarter to 98 cents per watt, breaking the $1 per watt price barrier.

“This achievement marks a milestone in the solar industry’s evolution toward providing truly sustainable energy solutions,” said Mike Ahearn, First Solar chief executive officer. “First Solar is proud to be leading the way toward clean, affordable solar electricity as a viable alternative to fossil fuels.”

First Solar has cut their cost by about 16% in less than a year. Impressive. Complaints that solar PV costs go down too slowly are starting to sound outdated.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 February 24 11:07 PM  Energy Solar

Tim said at February 25, 2009 9:18 AM:

What are your thoughts about: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanosolar They state even cheaper solar power

K said at February 25, 2009 10:43 AM:

I referenced Morgan a few days ago. Their site and announcements on concentrators seemed a little too slick to me. Problems are casually dismissed and they seem to have not actually produced anything yet.

But perhaps they will. That happens. And I hope their actions do match their words.

Wolf-Dog said at February 25, 2009 10:57 AM:

First Solar is using cadmium in the cells. If the world starts using such cells, then there will certainly be some dangerous cadmium leaks.

Bruch said at February 25, 2009 12:05 PM:

Utility scale photovoltaics stink. Without efficient utility scale storage it doesn't add up. Solar thermal plants can store a few hours worth of heat and keep running the steam turbines (not the gas turbines) running until midnight. Better than nothing.

PV is good for off grid applications and daylight only power. Give it ten years.

For utility applications, discussions about efficiency and "shrinking costs" are missing the main point.

Wolf-Dog said at February 25, 2009 12:16 PM:

Storage is a problem that is can easily be solved, provided that the necessary investment is done. Lead batteries are very cheap, and some utility companies are already experimenting with building size cheap battery farms. Lead batteries are easily recycled in a safe manner.

David Govett said at February 25, 2009 2:30 PM:

We could rejigger our genes to tolerate Cd.

MG said at February 25, 2009 9:59 PM:

So.. how much of the $/W manufacturing cost reduction is due to market declines in raw / processed material prices? If that explains the 18% drop, then they aren't actually reducing the "cost added" to the materials yet.

Nonetheless... there are so many "axes of advance" on the problem that niche markets (at least) will soon have plentiful options.

JohnMc said at February 26, 2009 9:42 AM:

Storage is a problem that is can easily be solved, provided that the necessary investment is done. Lead batteries are very cheap, and some utility companies are already experimenting with building size cheap battery farms. Lead batteries are easily recycled in a safe manner.

Lead-Acid is an EPA nightmare. Working for a Telco I know. Central Offices use huge 2V cells the size of refrigerators in series. But they are getting away from it as the regulatory restrictions make it uneconomic. Not only that but batteries of that type don't scale.

Orion said at February 26, 2009 10:08 AM:

Water storage is more efficient and eco-friendly. Using excess electricity you have a reversable turbine pump water from a low reservoir to one at a higher elevation. When demand is high you release the water back to the lower reservoir and use the turbine to generate electricity. The losses are comprable to the charging cycle of a lead-acid battery system and there are no dangerous chemicals to dispose of down the line.

Barry Kearns said at February 26, 2009 11:28 AM:

IIRC, there's at least one nuclear plant in Colorado that uses this water-pumping solution to handle the flip-side of this problem (in each case, the problem reduces to matching production curves with demand curves). When power demand is low (in the middle of the night, for example), they pump water uphill into a higher reservoir, and then during elevated demand periods (like the middle of a hot day), they pull extra generating capacity by capturing the energy from bringing the water back down to the lower reservoir.

JoeKing said at February 26, 2009 12:30 PM:

"Using excess electricity you have a reversable turbine pump water from a low reservoir to one at a higher elevation."

Wasn't this method first used in Greece? It was developed by..Sysefus

Neil B. said at February 26, 2009 6:55 PM:

First, "whatever happened" to Ovonics (informal name for amorphous semiconductor PV technology based on the ideas and experiments of Stanford Ovshinsky)? Is that worth delving into again? If it didn't reach its previously predicted potential (no pun intended, but maybe apt anyway ...) why not?

As possible alternative to any kind of PV use, may I ask: can we make effective use of some kind of solar concentration applied to Sterling cycle engines?

theBuckWheat said at February 26, 2009 7:55 PM:

Storage is a problem that is can easily be solved, provided that the necessary investment is done. Lead batteries are very cheap, and some utility companies are already experimenting with building size cheap battery farms. Lead batteries are easily recycled in a safe manner.

I am amazed at how easily people toss around the word "easily". In the above case, twice. Too bad there wasn't also a "simply" in there too. Any problem can be easiliy trivialized simply by using the right words. The present regime now trivializes the easily-made "necessary investment" by simply printing the money. Poof! Problems solved.

Peter said at February 27, 2009 5:33 AM:

I recently looked into getting a 1KW system put onto our roof because here in Australia the government will give a rebate of up to AUS8,000 for a minimum 1KW system. Despite the huge rebate the system would still cost AUD7500 ie AUD15500 all up. This 1KW system will produce max 5KW hours per day ( more likely 4 ) of power. This is shockingly bad value as it is about 50cents per day or maybe AUD160 per year. ie a 1% return. Wholesale the value of the electricity would be only 25c per day or less.

The panels themselves are 'only' about AUD9000 so the installation, framing, inverter and various other fees are about AUD6500. As you can see even if the panels were free, solar PV would still be very bad economics. Part of the problem is that the solar industry seems to have captured at least part of the rebate in higher fees ( not surprising ), but even disregarding that I think it will be a long time before solar PV is economic. The only reason why I looked into it is our local government is also offering to buy the power ( gross not net ) for 50c per kwh for at least 20 years, so it makes a bit more sense. But its almost a criminal waste of taxpayer money if you ask me - and I have been really keen on solar power for at least 30 years.

1 AUD (Aus dollar) = ~ USD0.65

Randall Parker said at February 28, 2009 12:46 PM:


The local government purchase of the power for 50c per kwh AUD is, in USD, 33c per kwh. To put that in perspective, the average cost of residential electric power in the US is 11 cents per kwh. Though solar electric gets produced when the demand for electricity (and the wholesale cost) is higher.

How many kwh per year would this AUD15500 (about 10k USD) system produce? It would depend on where in Australia you'd install it. Insolation (and therefore electricity production) varies by latitude and climate and by orientation of the roof.

Peter said at February 28, 2009 11:54 PM:


The company rep showed me figures of 5KWh per day for a 1Kw system. He admitted it would be more like 4Kw over the life of the panels. Where I live we get really hot summers and coldish winters but with clear skies. Apparently really hot causes the output to drop as well, which surprised me. I know you would do better in some places but it is still hideously expensive for a trickle of power. Don't get me wrong, I have been a big fan of solar for a long time but I just can't see how it can be economical for a long time yet. As I said, even if the panels were free, the other costs make it a bad proposition. It almost makes economic sense from a personal point of view ($700pa return on a $7500 investment - ~10% vs 5% in the bank ) but I can't bring myself to waste so much taxpayers money. More fool me I guess!

Randall Parker said at March 1, 2009 9:28 AM:


I'm not clear on your two different returns per year. The AUD160 per year assumes you use the electricity yourself and the AUD700 assumes you sell it at 50c per kwh to the government? You'd end up using part of it and selling part of it. So your total revenue would be somewhere in between, right?

In fact, once you install the panels your marginal cost of electricity during the day goes up since what you pay for electricity is much less than what you can sell it for, right? A kwh not used during the day earns you 50 cents.

K said at March 1, 2009 11:03 AM:

The one thing not mentioned is Aussie's present electrical bill for a year. That can simplify analysis. If a solar installation produces value for him he should install a unit large enough to cover his total bill. i.e. where he pays zero net for electricity.

I will assume he pays $3000/year for electricity. If an installation of 1000W will sell $750 back to the utility then Aussie could install roughly 4000W and have no bill at all.

Since that installation will save him $3000/year he benefits if he can borrow the installation costs and repay at less than $3000/year.

He should try to get a very low interest loan. That may be possible since the Australian government and utilities are probably pushing solar. The loan would pay off in about a decade at $3000/year and he would own the unit. His property would be more valuable and he would now net $3000/year savings.

This simple case assumes no change in rates from the utility and low interest for the loan. The panels should be good for about twenty years and other parts such as framing and wiring should last far longer. The cost of PV panel replacements twenty years from now may well be trivial.

If all were equal the utility could install PV and get the same benefits. But the utility cannot sell electricity for $0.50/KWH. So it is the law not economics that would shift the cost of Aussie's solar installation to someone else.

Gee, why does 'mortgage crisis' come to mind?

The mortgage analogy actually is rather applicable. If Aussie borrowed $30,000 for the 4000W installation that is really a mortgage or lien. And if the government allows him to borrow it at almost no interest the true interest will be paid by others.

I hope I got this right. It is Sunday and the first coffee is contending with sloth.

Fat Knowledge said at March 1, 2009 3:06 PM:

Looks like there is a question of whether there is enough cadmium telluride to allow First Solar to make enough solar panels to have a large impact on energy production. The researchers think fool's gold might be the way to go.

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