This is a good overview of the solar industry by Michelle Bennett of CleanTechnica.com. The article discusses Nanosolar‘s thin solar cell technology, traditional polysilicon photovoltaics, AVASolar’s CdTe thin film technology, problems with ramping up production of new (and old) PV technology, and alternative clean energy techniques, including solar heating. The article doesn’t mention First Solar, who are in production with thin film, non-silicon based photovoltaics that are, I believe, also based on CdTe (I learned about First Solar from Steve B.). However, it is a nice summary of the solar panel, photovoltaic (or PV) industry. Ms. Bennett mentions that Nanosolar has beaten the $1/Watt goal according to the US Department of Energy (DOE), so their solar panels are officially generating electricity cheaper than coal.

The story does omit mention of the terrible environmental problems in China due to polycrystalline silicon production.

In Ms. Bennett’s article, the point is made that with oil falling out of favor, a potential opportunity for coal exists to compete with solar, etc. Luckily, as I’ve blogged about, some investment banks are refusing to fund coal-fired electricity plants. We need to make sure that our government plays its part in keeping coal from expanding (which is a realistic goal after the current administration is swept out). Coal plant emissions have already been ruled illegal in the US.* A great example is being set by Germany, for example, where solar and wind power are being pursued aggressively. Spain is also very active in solar power, and England is pursuing wind power with vigor.

Thanks to cmanders53 for DIGGing this article, which is how I came across it.

*On Friday, a US federal appeals court in Washington ruled that a policy by the Bush administration that exempted coal- and oil-fired power plants from regulations on emissions of mercury and other hazardous substances “was unlawful”. See the link above for more by Sam Carana on illegal coal emissions.

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© James K. Bashkin, 2008

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  1. Great post, and a good article in Clean Technica. We have an energy research company here in the Netherlands which is actively pursuing both technologies, silicon and thin-film. When I talked with a member of their solar team, he said they view it as a friendly competition between the two research groups, to see who can achieve cost-effectiveness faster. Sounded like a good spur to speed progress. It also looked as though thin film will win in the end. Interesting stuff.

    Thanks so much for stopping by my blog, Jim! I replied to your comment there as well.
    Best,
    Rachel

  2. Thanks Rachel! I’m glad to hear that silicon and thin film technologies are co-existing so well at your company. I think you are absolutely right- thin films will come out on top, but it will take a while before their production capacity is large enough to meet world-wide needs.

    Great to hear from you, Jim

  3. Mr Bashkin,

    Thanks for mentioning my article! You’re absolutely right to mention China and the Washington Post article. I too was appalled when I read it. Your article describing the high-and-mighty status of factory managers, and the effects of their illegal dumping are both disturbing and sobering. The solar industry’s future is bright, but like any industry, efforts must be made to ensure that the benefits inherent are not mitigated by incidents like those in the Henan Province, or others yet to be discovered.

    I admit that I omitted First Solar despite its success and reputation in the industry. Perhaps it was a poor decision on my part, but to my knowledge they are not producing solar cells at or under $1/watt. If they are, in fact, selling their products at the magic price, I’d love to know!

    You also wrote in your comment on Cleantechnica,
    “Electricity still has to be stored or it gets wasted, and the pollution from coal is significant, as you know.”
    Yes indeed, but I do wish that battery technologies were farther along to offer more options to the solar industry. Other industries (auto) would benefit as well. The issue of environmental impacts from battery technologies is the subject of a different discussion!

    One reason I fancy solar-thermal is because it stores excess energy as heat, which is much more efficient. Cleantechnica has several articles on that topic, including one relating solar-thermal to coal.

    Lastly, Nanosolar and indium. That’s a tough one because some projections claim indium supplies will run out within the decade. However, given Nanosolar’s competitive thin-film cells, I’d fall short of actually criticizing them at this point. Their product, and First Solar too, will help wean us off of carbon-based energy production, which we agree is a necessary step for the near (immediate?) future.

    Thanks again! I’ll copy and paste excerpts from my comment onto Cleantechnica, in case any readers choose to read along. Naturally I’ll also include a link to this blog.

  4. Dear Ms. Bennett: thanks so much for your very kind and detailed response. The points in your comment are excellent ones. I hope I didn’t sound too critical in my blog- I really liked your article and simply wanted to augment it with a few things that I’ve read about, and in some cases written about, recently. I was so disturbed by two articles about China, both discussed on this blog, regarding health hazards in electronics recycling and polycrystalline silicon manufacture that I simply feel a need to speak up about these stories. It is particularly frustrating that some of China’s richest people are running these terrible businesses- I’m sure they could afford to do better. But, that wasn’t the focus of your article.

    Your reasoning behind your choices, which you kindly explained in your comment above, makes a lot of sense. I agree with you entirely that solar-thermal energy is an excellent way to improve the sustainability of our energy supply. I have absolutely no argument with it and, in fact, I wrote strongly in its favor in a couple of recent discussions at the social network Gather.com.

    I certainly can’t argue with your wish that battery technology had come further, but I have read about enough examples of real electric cars being made and used, and about things like running homes off of electric car batteries at night, that I don’t feel the technology to be overly flawed. In fact, I just read that Denmark has so much extra wind-power capacity that they are going to set up a national program for charging electric cars with that capacity. But, again, you are right that we can’t gloss over the issues that battery disposal and lifetime introduce. I believe these issues are quite significant, but also that they are much more manageable than the waste from coal or nuclear power. So, I think we are really agreeing on all but the smallest details, in a sense, though the details are important.

    I haven’t seen a $1/Watt claim from First Solar, either. However, since the technology is based on CdTe, I made the intuitive (but not necessarily correct) leap that AVASolar’s technology would be similar because it, too, will be governed by the physics of CdTe. That, and the fact that I had taken some heat in earlier articles for ignoring such an established company as First Solar in favor of the relatively young Nanosolar, made me sensitive to simply bringing First Solar into the discussion. I am particularly impressed with companies that actually manage to implement their new technology on a significant manufacturing scale because there are so many barriers, technical and financial and otherwise (I think I wish that I didn’t have such a good appreciation of this problem … :).

    Regarding your final point about Nanosolar and Indium, I have no special knowledge (at this moment- I think I’ll look into it), and I think the tone of your comment is right on target. We need to shift away from carbon-based fuels, and we need to use reasonable methods to do so. All of the solar panels we have discussed seem reasonable or better, though they may be supplanted by other approaches sooner than I expect, out of necessity or invention, or both.

    It is very kind of you to link to this blog, and I am most grateful. I have linked to your Cleantechnica article both here and in a republished version at Gather.com. I look forward to exploring other articles on the Cleantechnica site.

    You have been most patient with me in your response to my article, and I’ll close simply by thanking you again.

  5. Hey James,

    I was wondering if you could explain CdTe to me in more detail. I’ve tried to read up on it, but I’m a brazen humanities double-major. Abstract numerical symbols mean very little to me, unfortunately.

    I haven’t been able to track down a decent article or explanation that adequately puts it in layman’s terms. Do you happen to have any links or thoughts on the topic?

  6. p.s.: Thanks for your wonderful reply to my comments! I’m checking out Gather.com. It looks like you can get some great discussions running there.

  7. Dave Newman

    What can you tell me about Hemlock Semiconductor? They are going to be opening a plant in Clarksville, TN. to manufacture polycrystalline silicon for solar cells and semiconductor chips and it’s a joint venture between Dow Corning Corp. and two Japanese companies. They claim to be the world’s largest maker of polycrystalline silicon and are based in Michigan. Just wondering if you have any data on their safety record.

    Thanks.

    • Dave, I don’t know anything about them. Odd name. I would expect that Dow and the Japanese companies will do an excellent job. The only problems I’m aware of with polysilicon manufacture occur in China. I’ve discussed them on this site in several posts (you can do a site search for silicon or China, etc.). The technology to avoid toxic chemical release, and recycle rather than dispose of the problem byproducts, is well established and used in developed countries, but so far Chinese companies are not bothering to implement it, resulting in serious environmental and health problems for people who live near the silicon plants.

  8. really good




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