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For Solar, The Future is Thin

Sept. 12, 2008
Thin film technologies are poised for growth.

Rising energy prices, concerns about fossil fuels and financial incentives are among the forces driving a booming market for solar energy. Indeed, in the United States alone more than 80,000 solar installations were completed in 2007, according to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.

Now several reports and recent events suggest that thin film technologies will make strong inroads into a booming market grown heady on crystalline silicon. Lux Research Inc., for instance, predicts that inorganic thin-film photovoltaic (PV) technologies will mature in the next five years to grab 28% of the solar market in 2012 with $19.7 billion in sales. A separate report from industry analyst firm NanoMarkets forecasts that the thin-film PV market will produce the equivalent of 26 gigawatts by 2015 and generate over $20 billion in revenue in that same time frame.

Thin-film PVs aim to lower costs by using less or less expensive material than traditional solar to produce electricity. The challenges of thin film include efficiency and low-cost, large-scale manufacturing. Recently HelioVolt and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) were honored for a process that may help impact the latter challenge. They received an R&D 100 award for a hybrid process for producing large-grain, high-quality copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) thin film solar devices. The patented process shows promise in simplifying and speeding up the process for printing thin-film PV systems.

This rooftop solar power station by Veolia Environment and Clairvoyant Energy sits atop a General Motors facility in Zaragoza, Spain. Uni-Solar thin-film photovoltaic panels on membrane power the system.Efficiency gains are coming. In March, researchers at the NREL reported creating a CIGS thin-film solar cell that reached 19.9% efficiency, reportedly setting a new world record for this type of cell.

Meanwhile, Sharp Corp. demonstrated its belief in the future of thin-film solar cells by announcing plans to build a thin film solar cell plant in Japan. And in June GE Solar announced that it had increased its equity share in PrimeStar Solar, which aims to develop and manufacture thin film PV modules.

Casting a cloud over continued growth of the solar market in general, at least in the United States, is the expiration of a federal investment tax credit. As of early September, it had not been renewed.

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