The Solar Power International 2010 just finished at the Los Angeles Convention Center. This is probably the largest get together of people in the solar industry in the United States. The top vendors from all over the world were present.
Among the many interesting developments, many new product technologies, many new solutions focused on cost reduction, and many lessons learned along the way.
In the new developments, there are a number of new product entries, especially in the concentrating solar panel area. As a subset of the Concentrating Solar category, there are a group of products which are similar to conventional solar panels, but use a lens like a magnifying glass to concentrate the sun’s light on a small patch of silicon that converts light to electricity. This approach has been around for a while, but in the past has had thermal problems due to the heat that is produced. Remember setting a dry leaf on fire with a magnifying glass when you were a kid? Same thing.
The cost of the optics have come down and combined with the reduced cost of the silicon used, makes this type of concentrating solar more competitive. But this type of concentrating solar technology requires 2 axis solar tracking with a fair amount of precision in order for the optics to do their job properly.
So there are a lot of new tracking systems coming into the market as well. Large array trackers with high angular precision and high force from vendors like Bonfiglioli of Italy, Sener and TGB Group of Spain. These systems are generally high reduction ring gears with a precision worm and spur output in the final stage. Once again, a major mechatronic challenge in the middle of solar technology. To say nothing of the incredible mechatronics required to manufacture solar panels.
There are five or six vendors who have built and installed these CPV systems have an interesting advantage. They are reporting efficiencies of 22% and higher. This is really amazing considering that the conventional photovoltaics are are typically in the range of 12% and thin film are 8%. These are very significant developments in making the technology more cost effective.
And the forecast growth for solar in the US continues to be, well, “sunny”. Sales of solar products in the US are expected to double again next year. Which is amazing.
Its hard not to get excited about it. But there is an important truth to be considered. Solar Energy is still highly government subsidized. The history of solar energy is built largely through the “Feed In Tariff”. This is a mechanism where the utility company agrees to pay a premium price for electricity generated with photovoltaic equipment.
In the early years of 2000 the Spanish government set the highest Feed In Tariffs in all of Europe. This caused a massive influx of companies to ramp up to manufacture and install huge amounts of equipment. And therein lies the problem. Spain has too much capacity and not enough demand.
Germany, which has relatively poor sunlight, has led the entire EU in solar installations. German PV engineering and capacity are well know around the world. But what’s different about the situation in Germany is that the feed in tariff is being reduced gradually to allow the industry to adjust to demand that is not subsidized.
There are 2 lessons here that are very important. We must be careful to not “overbuild” based on enthusiasm. And we must protect American interests by purchasing domestic products. And currently, our political leaders do not appear to be paying attention to either of these issues.