By Phillip CARTWRIGHT
Solar energy usually brings to mind large crystalline panels. These panels have been around for a long time. Crystalline panels are quite costly to make because of the expertise required as well as capital inputs (i.e. plant requirements and machinery). The process for making panels has improved, but the panel today is pretty much the same as the panel used twenty or so years ago.
Technology invention and innovation now offer us a very promising alternative to traditional panels in the form of so-called “thin film solar”. Thin film, or amorphous, panels are very different from wafer-based modules. This new technology is dramatically reducing the cost of solar power. Moreover, because of enhanced flexibility the cells can be placed on more surfaces. The downside is that while the first generation cells (86% of the high efficiency market), they are 24 percent efficient in conversion from sun to electricity. Second generation (amorphous) technology is clearly cheaper to produce, but thin film solar cells are less efficient.
Invention and innovation are being announced (it seems) daily. First Solar Inc., the world's largest thin-film solar company, has set a new world record for the most efficient panels made of cadmium telluride. The company announced in January that it produced a thin-film solar panel that can convert 14.4 percent of sunlight it absorbs to electricity relative to a previous record of 13.4 percent conversion efficiency achieved last year.
Today thin-film panels make up a relatively small percentage of global market for solar power. While most thin film applications are found in large-scale industrial projects, the rapid pace of development in the industry indicates that the technology will be available for individuals in the not-to-distant future. Good news for us all.