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Few people understand the time, money and effort required to develop
and manufacture high quality solar technologies. We can blame
this fact on a reliance on press releases for news about the solar
Manufacturers drive these misunderstanding by not properly
explaining that champion results are not analogous to or in many
cases near commercial viability. The PERC, passivated emitter rear
contact solar cell, now gaining market traction began its long
trudge to commercial competitiveness in the mid-1980s. When
manufacturers announce results without fully ex-plaining these
results the effect is misleading and also furthers the illusion that
breakthroughs are imminent.
Elon Musk’s recent announcement about his new and innovative solar
roof – which turned out to be a fact-lite announcement of a solar
tile product – is another example of press that calls attention to
nothing that is either new, innovative or that deserves much press
coverage in the first place.
Waiting for the next technology breakthrough is like Waiting for
Godot, the play by Samuel Becket about the meaningless of life and
where Godot never arrives. The definition of breakthrough in the
solar industry is amorphous and essentially meaningless. In reality
the many profound breakthroughs that have inched the photovoltaic
industry forward to where it is today – undervalued for the very
technology crucial to it, the solar cell – have taken decades.
Beware of company press releases announcing future plans or stating
that a company is the leader in a space. For one thing there may be
only one company in the space.
There is a lot of precedent for announcing future manufacturing
capacity building and for referring to the future as if it were a
fait accompli. In 2014 SolarCity (SCTY)
announced to great fanfare its plans for the largest solar
manufacturing facility in the US, a1-GWp c-Si facility in New York.
Many industry participants and observers took the announcement as
proof of a US manufacturing renaissance.
Blast from the past: In April 2011 GE
bought PrimeStar, a 30-MWp, pre-commercial CdTe manufacturer based
in Colorado for $600-million. In its announcement GE stated that
they would build the nation’s largest manufacturing facility, a
400-MWp CdTe facility in Colorado. In 2013, after failing to
commercialize PrimeStar’s CdTe technology, GE sold the startup’s
technology assets to First Solar in a stock deal valued at
$82-million. The moral of this example is that though planning for
the future is crucial, announcing these plans as fact is most often
a huge mistake.
Misleading PR driven solar news has trained readers to expect a
constant stream of advancements and dulled the senses to the true
nature of advancement. Technology breakthroughs are, as previously
indicated, years and potentially decades from idea to prototype to
champion result to pilot scale production to commercial
competitiveness. Advancement is driven by repeatability that is,
doing the same experiment or test again and again and again and
again until an average result is achieve and can be repeated – again
For example, in the mid-2000s companies such as Applied Materials (AMAT),
Oerlikon and others tried to leapfrog over the historic development
timeline by offering turnkey manufacturing so that new entrants
eager to make a buck in the photovoltaic industry could avoid years
of trial and error and jump almost immediately into commercial
production. Years of announcements later the turnkey PV
manufacturing model is rarely mentioned.
Solar conferences compound the problem by providing little in the
way of education or actual facts about technology development.
Better information is available at the scientific conferences such
as the IEEE PVSC but at the 2016 PVSC in Portland, Oregon an
executive from Solar Frontier spent fifteen minutes describing the
history of the company and leaving out salient facts such as current
production costs, average prices and the commercial efficiency of
its commercial CIS modules.
At the 2016 Solar Power International Conference in September during
a focus group several people said that they were bored with the
solar cell, referring to it as a commodity and wondering when the
next breakthrough would be announced.
PR driven news cycles train us to expect giant breakthroughs where
we should expect hard work. That leaves us bored even when
that hard work is paying off.
Paula Mints is founder of SPV Market Research, a
classic solar market research practice focused on gathering data
through primary research and providing analyses of the global
solar industry. You can find her on Twitter @PaulaMints1
and read her blog here.
This article was originally published in the October31st issue
a bimonthly executive report on the solar industry, and is
republished with permission.
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