Researchers have studied the journey of clean energy technologies from the lab to the market, including First Solar’s thin-film cadmium telluride solar modules.
Corresponding PV Magazine USA
Research and development are essential for the development of new technologies. But there are many other hurdles to overcome to get from the lab to the market.
Analysts from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis (JISEA) and the US Department of Energy (DoE) examined the commercialization of four clean energy technologies. They considered the case of thin-film solar modules, wind turbines, double-flow evaporators for refrigeration, and fuel cells for handling equipment.
The conclusions of these analyzes published in the article Frontiers in energy research, found three common elements for successful advances in commercialization: (1) a good match between public-private partnerships, R&D infrastructure and the technology itself; (2) favorable alignment of government regulations, R&D priorities and market trends; and (3) the right timing between technology availability and market opportunity.
“These insights can help inform clean energy investment decisions, maximize R&D gains, and drive the transition to a productive low-carbon future.2 said Wyatt Merrill, chief technology officer at DoE and co-author of the study.
The thin film solar system case study focuses on First Solar, a US manufacturer that benefited from the Department of Energy (DoE) photovoltaic research and received direct DoE funding for the research between the 1980s and 2000s. Researchers attribute First Solar’s early success to the company’s ability to meet the regulatory requirements of the first major market for thin-film PV technology and to deliver a proven price point when the market was ready.
In the early stages of thin film research, a notable breakthrough showed a record (then) efficiency of 15.8% for a cell using a cadmium chloride (CdCl2). First Solar has co-developed a high-level vapor transport deposition technique to manufacture CdTe-based modules at scale, providing an alternative to the slower and more expensive indoor sublimation process.
With the right equipment efficiencies and scalable manufacturing processes in place, R&D could focus on testing and validating the product’s reliability. First Solar used testing standards, product quality certifications, and outdoor test facilities funded by the DoE and operated by Arizona State University and NREL to prove in 2003 that its modules were ready to enter the solar market.
First Solar entered the robust German solar market in the 2000s, but first its modules had to meet certain energy efficiency and regulatory requirements, particularly around e-waste and restrictions on the use of certain toxic substances like cadmium. In 2004, efforts were made to address concerns about emissions and recyclability of CdTe PV modules through independent peer-reviewed studies.
Then, in 2004, First Solar signed its first contract for its thin compound semiconductor modules in the German market, marking a commercial turning point for CdTe-based PV. In 2005, First Solar announced a module take-back and recycling program in response to changes in European regulations. These actions have communicated First Solar’s responsiveness to regulatory issues and sufficiently addressed public risk perceptions to open doors to key markets.
While CdTe-based modules are less efficient than silicon-based modules, they cost less to manufacture and had the lowest price per watt benefit from his technology between the mid-2000s and mid-2010s.
“The thin-film PV case study underscores the importance of meeting regulatory requirements in the technology’s first major market,” said Marie Mapes, CTO and co-author of the study. In addition, the first successes were possible thanks to the proposal of a proven product at a price and at a time that the market was ready for.”
Key findings from the thin film PV case study identified the successful deployment of three key commercialization strategies: public/private development of a technology with many elements of commercial interest; the correspondence between the objectives set in terms of technological costs and the development of the product that makes it possible to achieve them; and the right timing between technology availability and market opportunities.
First Solar’s thin-film development benefits from decades of government funding, allowing it to conduct fundamental materials research and meet testing standards. The company was well prepared and able to offer the right product at the right time. CdTe photovoltaics with proven reliability was a lower cost alternative in the clean energy market and opened the door to several possibilities, which gave this solar technology its first commercial success.
The four case studies show how a good balance between technology, R&D and public-private partnership (not to mention the alignment between regulation, market trends and proper timing) can lead to a successful first commercialization of clean energy technologies.
Translation provided by Christelle Taureau.
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