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7 May 2020

NREL sees First Solar chasing cheap perovskite printing at scale

Last week we talked about the National Renewable Energy Authority (NREL), in the US, pulling together facilities to make a leap from the labs to scale production of perovskite based solar panels. See NREL drags academia and business into US Perovskite fight-back.

So afterwards we chatted to Joe Berry at NREL the senior scientist, perovskite and hybrid solar cells team lead, who is heading up this new initiative, to get some details of the “go to market” strategy.

He talked up the possibilities from the first, “Perovskite has gone from nothing to something in 10 years, and it is on the cusp of taking off. I personally have come to believe in it, from the position of previously being a true skeptic. We want to move this onto manufacturing at scale.”

Having talked to another market leader in taking this to market in the form of Oxford PV, the UK based perovskite specialist, we immediately asked about stability of the materials NREL would be bringing to this effort. It took Oxford PV about five years of operating in stealth to nail down stability, it told us last summer.

“Well we already have a handle on efficiency, and we are saying that the next stop is scalability. But we also know that stability is another big question.  But we know a lot about stability. We have good relations with overseas Universities and have open access relationships with all of them.

“There is a notion that silicon panels are all bullet proof – but you don’t always get 30 years out of them and stability needs to be vetted. Let’s put it this way, at NREL we are an ‘A’ student in stability, scoring 85%, and perhaps Oxford PV may be a fraction ahead, but we are in the ball park. Yes it may have some secret sauce, and of course there is some IPR, but there is an expectation that researchers write papers and that quite a lot of the IP are in public works.”

He was keen to make it clear that academics move around and that many of the individuals working at NREL’s industrial partners have worked alongside Oxford PV key researchers when they were at various universities. For instance the Swift Solar team includes solar technologists from Stanford, MIT, Cambridge, Oxford, the University of Washington, and NREL itself, and many academics in the Oxford PV team come from these esteemed institutions.

Berry painted NREL not as a partisan US player, but one with its fingers into Europe and China – “we partner heavily all over the world,” he said, “and throughout the history of solar NREL has underpinned a lot of what gone on in the market, internationally.”

Berry said very clearly that there are multiple ways of exploiting perovskite, and that while he did not speak for the industrial partners in the US Manufacturing of Advanced Perovskites Consortium (US-MAP), the two obvious ways – of creating thin film panels of pure perovskite or using it to make silicon even better (in a multi-junction hybrid) – were very different routes.

“You have to remember that one industrial partner, First Solar is the only solar panel maker that bases its existing manufacturing around thin film technology.”

“First Solar has the most reliable balance sheet of anyone in the industry – the Chinese firms are mostly not public and so you cannot see their books, and there is no real understanding of how much support their government gives them or how profitable they really are. And anyway First Solar is the only company surviving on thin film technology at scale.

“What we have done is create a consortia and as such we will not dictate the time or route to market for any one member of the consortia. But I would expect something to happen for real in 3 to 5 years. They are the industrial members, and we at the universities offer them technical assistance to accelerate their time to market. Even First Solar does not have the time to be as analytical as a university department can,” he added.

The Universities involved in US-MAP are Washington, North Carolina and Toledo and more recently the University of Colorado and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

Oxford PV told us that it was planning to push solar efficiency at around 1% a year, adding to the 27% efficiency its first panels would come to market at until it reached way over 35% efficiency.

CEO Frank Averdung told us last year, “if you look at the cost of solar installations in a dollar per watt basis, the silicon represents about 12% of the total system cost. If you simply make silicon PV cheaper, even by 20%, you only make the installation cheaper by 20% of that 12% cost – some 2.4% decrease in total system price, because the rest of it is taken up with the balance of the system, which has not changed.” As a result Averdung sees his mission to make a system cost more or less the same but yield 35% to 40% efficiency – and as a result make more money for the developer and the panel maker.

He also claimed to have quite a lot of IPR with 270 PV patents or applied for patents.

So while Oxford PV has no scale and will make a single production line with 125 MW of capacity later this year and then try to sign licenses, First Solar is more likely to make a solar panel that is really cheap to build – by effectively printing a perovskite PV circuit onto glass, and bring it to market for a fraction of the price – but at scale and yielding more or less what a solar panel yields right now.

One play is to drive up profit, the other to drive up scale, because after all First Solar with $3 billion of revenue has that scale, and Oxford PV does not. At present First Solar builds its existing thin film solar using Cadmium Telluride already, so this is not much of a change for it.

But each of the six US industry players in US-MAP can choose their own strategy and apart from First Solar they include BlueDot Photonics, Energy Materials Corporation, Hunt Perovskites Technologies, Swift Solar, and Tandem PV.

And if we want to talk about scale, this week Bluedot Photonics has just been selected for Shell’s Game Changer Accelerator – whereby and Shell gives the company a $250,000 coupon to spend with NREL, which can validate claims made by Bluedot for Shell and other investors, and offer advice (see separate story this issue).

BlueDot is going down the same route as Oxford PV trying to make silicon panels better by adding perovskite to them, by around 10%. Whereas Energy Materials Corporation is back to that scale – a specialist in printing PV panels in high volumes, more a manufacturing expert than a perovskite expert, which will cut production price of panels by a claimed 50%.