Concentrated photovoltaic solar (CPV) is increasing its presence in the utility-scale solar market, but its growth has been partially stunted by falling prices for less efficient PV options such as conventional crystalline silicon, making it less competitive with respect to cost. When it comes to power generation, cost is the primary part of the decision criteria for considering technology options, in contrast to commercial electronic devices that utilize many of the same materials and components as solar modules, but are less cost-sensitive due to the appeal of a diverse array of performance advantages and niche user applications as in iphones and ipads.
GTM Research recently reported that the global average selling prices for traditional solar modules fell approximately one dollar from $3.50 per watt to $2.50 per watt over the last 12 months. Thus, CPV companies have had to be more clever in finding a profitable niche in the global solar market. One of the approaches has been to identify power generation projects that offer incentives or subsidies affiliated with the use of less land compared to traditional solar or other renewable energy sources. CPV has a clear competitive advantage compared to traditional PV in its power generating capacity per square foot, since higher efficiencies can be garnered per cell due to its ability to focus and concentrate sunlight, using lenses or mirrors, by up to a 1000 times the standard exposure on a cell. Also, CPV requires significantly less water than competitive concentrating solar power systems such as solar thermal and solar dish engines, which is critical in desert climates such as southern Arizona that are ideal for these technologies.
CPV has a larger window for efficiency improvement compared to most non-concentrated PV technology, in general, based on the inherent nature of this solar power method. Many companies in the CPV space have made major strides in performance in recent years, while several university research groups have reported efficiency values over 40 percent.
A leading company, Semprius, based in Durham, NC, reported a value rivaling the world record CPV solar module efficiency using Solar Junction’s III-V semiconductor multi-junction solar cells based on lattice-matched dilute nitrides. The firm recorded a module efficiency of 33.9 percent. Solar Junction, a CPV developer of multi-junction cells, is working with Semprius and has inked an agreement to deliver multi-megawatts of epitaxial wafers to support these efforts.
As CPV continues to strive for increasing market share, it has been impacted by the oversupply of crystalline silicon solar cells on the market, which has driven down average selling prices of all types of solar cells. Based on 2011 industry results from IMS Research, the top five solar module manufacturers were based in China, which all develop conventional solar technology and subsequently were directly or indirectly found guilty of dumping solar modules on the US market below manufacturing cost in a federal trade case initiated by a US solar module manufacturer, SolarWorld. However, the ramifications of the case will likely lead to tariffs on solar components imported from China to the US, which will ultimately reduce the oversupply on the market and counteract falling prices.
First Solar, headquartered in Tempe, AZ, which manufactures cadnium telluride thin-film solar cells, without the use of CPV, was the only US company in the top five globally, and it retained its ranking at number 2 based on the IMS study. However, this company has fallen dramatically in financial performance over the last several years, as its stock price plummeted approximately 90 percent since its high in May 2008. First Solar experienced a poor 2011, and particularly poor fourth quarter results announced this week showing declines across many key financials, along with many other solar companies, leading them to lower 2012 expectations.
As solar industry leaders such as First Solar undergo declining financial performance amid ranking high in market share, it sheds light on the future challenges for emerging competitors in the overall market including innovative CPV solar companies. Furthermore, it shows the reliance on more government intervention to support renewable energy and carbon emissions reductions policies globally in order to make this race more rewarding financially in the end.
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