Silicon: Not the Only Cheap Solar Component Anymore

In the quest for more efficient and lower cost components in solar energy production, silicon might lose market share.

Lux Research released a report this week revealing that two compounds new to the electronics market are edging into silicon’s territory. Silicon Carbide and Gallium Nitride are expected to gain up to 22 percent market share by 2020 in an industry that’s currently dominated by silicon.

While the report indicates that the compounds will account for about $3.3 billion in sales across the entire electronics industry, report author Pallavi Madakasira said Silicon Carbide is especially suited for large gains in the solar industry.

“Solar applications, particularly inverters, have always been based in silicon,” Madakasira said. “But developers see the need to reduce transmission losses so they are able to convert a higher percentage of power into usable energy.”

Silicon carbide does not add a lot of expense, but does conduct higher voltages and is more tolerant of extreme heat than traditional silicon, Madakasira said. She expects manufacturers building components like inverters for the solar industry to begin using more and more silicon carbide in coming years and estimates that it will claim about a 32 percent market share in the solar industry by 2020.

She said she didn’t expect to see solar manufacturers working much with Silicon Carbide or Gallium Nitride, but those electronics manufacturers interested in improving anything from inverters to solar, wind and grid energy storage devices will likely be working with the materials and incorporating them into products.

While Silicon Carbide is favored in energy and solar applications, Gallium Nitride is gaining market share in other electronics niches.

Madakasira said she would not be surprised if more solar industry electronics manufacturers begin using Gallium Nitride as well. It will just take longs, she said.

“Gallium Nitride is significantly more expensive,” she said.

And that’s why it isn’t gaining ground as quickly, but it does offer significant mechanical advantages and efficiencies that could make it attractive.

Even with new materials in the market and gaining market share, Madakasira said she doesn’t expect anything to replace traditional silicon.

“I expect silicon will continue to dominate,” she said.

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