Several years ago the huge manufacturing capacity push by the Chinese government slashed the cost of solar panels based on silicon cell technology. The huge influx of dirt cheap China-manufactured solar panels was condemned as ‘dumping’ by Western competitors and many of their governments. In reality it was and, heavily subsidised by the Chinese government, many of these manufacturers were subsequently unable to sustain commercial viability and went out of business.
However, there was also a positive outcome. The strongest survived, Western manufacturers also had to become more price competitive, and the end cost of solar panels came down so much that under the right conditions, producing electricity from solar power achieved grid parity with fossil fuels.
The actual technology of solar panels, that use silicon cells to capture lights and convert it into electrical power, hasn’t changed much over the past several years. Efficient and price competitive enough to be a viable alternative and compliment to fossil fuels, there was no pressing need for it to. But a new kind of solar cell technology first experimented with by Japanese researchers in 2009 has now reached to point it is ready to be commercialised. And it is even cheaper and more efficient than existing solar cell technology.
In the UK, Oxford PV, an Oxford University spin-out has received a $3 million government grant to commercialise the new solar cell technology. And on the other side of the Atlantic Swift Solar, a U.S. start-up, has raised $7 million to bring the same technology to market.
The latest technology in the world of solar power is called ‘perovskite cell’. It is thought that solar panels that use perovskite cell technology could cost less than half that of silicon alternatives while offering greater efficiency in the electricity they are able to produce from the same sunlight. The ‘light harvesting’ active layer of these new panels uses a material based on a hybrid organic-inorganic lead or tin-halide compound. The new solar cell chemistry was recently explained during a Ted Talk given by Sam Stranks, one of Swift Solar’s co-founders and the start-up’s lead scientific advisor:
“These thin crystalline films are made by mixing two inexpensive readily abundant salts to make an ink that can be deposited in many different ways… “
Oxford PV’s perovskite cell panels have also achieved conversion efficiencies of 37%, which is much higher than the 25% efficiency achieved by most of the silicon cell solar panels used domestically on rooftops. Panels at less the price and significantly more efficient in producing electricity could be expected to lead to a new wave of installations globally and significantly boost the share of our energy mix that comes from renewables. And the new panels are expected to be commercially available in the new year. Oxford PV CTO Chris Case recently commented:
“Today, commercial-sized perovskite-on-silicon tandem solar cells are in production at our pilot line and we are optimizing equipment and processes in preparation for commercial deployment.”