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Photovoltaic Technologies, Thin-Film Solar and Solar Panel Efficiency, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Traditionally, photovoltaic (PV) technology was based on layers of silicon assembled within panels that are engineered to attract the sun’s rays and create a flow of electric current to electrodes (the “photoelectric effect”).  However, new developments in this technology are emerging continually.
Immense amounts of effort and venture capital are being invested in solar technology, both in the U.S. and abroad.  Significant progress is being made each year.  The efficiency of solar cells is rising while costs per unit of electric output have plummeted.  However, solar panels remain expensive to install, and they require continuing maintenance in order to keep them clean enough to operate at peak power.  Current standard PV technology converts about 20% to 25% of available sunlight into electricity.  However, breakthroughs in technology and efficiency are occurring in the laboratory at a rapid clip, thanks to intense new investments in research.  High efficiency is important when you consider the fact that peak sunlight is available only a limited part of the day.
For many years, the Holy Grail of the PV industry was to be able to sell solar cells at less than $1.00 per watt of electricity produced (equal to five to six cents per kilowatt-hour), which would make PV relatively price competitive with traditional electric generation in sunny locations.  (Watts are measured at mid-day peak output of the cell.)  This $1.00 per watt barrier has not only been achieved but significantly surpassed, as it is possible to purchase certain types of solar equipment far below the $1.00 per watt range.
Traditional, crystalline solar cells are heavy and expensive to manufacture.  However, their efficiency in converting sunlight has historically been superior to the lighter weight alternative known as thin film.  Crystalline cells are constructed with silicon semiconducting materials.  Thin film, also known as amorphous, can offer advantages in some installations.  It is somewhat flexible.  Also, thin film can be less expensive to manufacture.
The challenge for thin film companies has been to enhance the efficiency of the units.  First Solar held a record 22.1% conversion efficiency for cadmium telluride as of late 2019 and was maintaining between 17.9% and 19.0% for its Series 6 modules in 2021.  The firm recently forecasted 25% cell efficiency by 2025 and 28% by 2030.  First Solar has invested more than $1.5 billion since 1998 in research and development of a cadmium telluride spray for thin solar panels, and has renovated its Toledo, Ohio manufacturing plant to be almost completely automated.  The panels produced there are three times the size of the company’s previous model, cost as little as 20 cents per watt and produce 244% more power.
A breakthrough in solar cell manufacturing is a hybrid in which solar cells made of crystalline silicon are topped with a thin layer of another form of silicon and a layer of a semiconductor oxide.  SolarCity (which is part of Tesla) acquired a company that was a pioneer in the hybrid solar cells called Silevo.  The cells are more efficient than standard silicon cells and cheaper to make.  Tesla manufactures the cells at its massive Gigafactory 2 plant in Buffalo, New York. 
Meanwhile, there are compounds with a crystal structure that have the potential to be used as semiconductors within solar cells, either as an alternative to, or in combination with, traditional silicone.  Called perovskites, they allow semi-transparent solar cells to be easily and cheaply made in large rolls by mixing special chemical solutions and pouring the result onto a suitable backing.  Silicone is believed to have reached its maximum efficiency in converting light to electricity, while perovskites could conceivably achieve much higher levels.

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