The Future of Solar (Part 2) -- Leapfrog
As the Japanese government struggles with trying to figure out just how much solar PV will actually be built under the feed-in-tariff (FIT), it becomes clearer and clearer that solar PV will be a huge part of Japan's energy future, whatever METI and the current government decide to do with the FIT.
Why? Solar PV modules are now 80% cheaper than in 2008. And the trend will continue, with some dramatic improvements just a few years from commercialization. Two announcements in PV Magazine's daily newsletter this week drew my eye.
First, PV Magazine reported that Oxford PV (formed by Oxford University-affiliated scientists) appears to be making swift progress with its plans for PV based upon a cheap "thin film perovskite" technology. In two years they have moved from cell-level conversion efficiencies of 5% to 17%. If this is dramatically cheaper than traditional crystalline technology, that will be a huge improvement.
But more importantly, Oxford PV announced that it plans much more quickly to commercialize another use of the technology -- adding a cheap perovskite "tandem layer" to traditional crystalline modules. By doing so, they plan to increase the conversion efficiency of traditional modules by 20%. They plan to have "prototype modules" by 2015. If this is in the market by 2018 or 2019, wow. A cheap add-on technology that could boost basic PV module effiency by 20%. So a 16% conversion efficiency module becomes a 20% conversion efficiency module.
Separately, an Australian research organization, CSIRO, announces it is near commercializing a cheap "printable" solar PV technology. The technology for "spray on" solar ink, using a modified commercial printer, would allow just about any plastic surface to be converted into a solar cell. Current conversion efficiencies are in the 10% range, but are improving. The cost of the ink is "negligible". Several Australian printing companies are reportedly studying the possibility of working with CSIRO to commercialize products. With this, it is possible to imagine a cheap solar "tent", solar "mats", cheap BIPV windows with a solar layer, and on and on. (Australian researchers have held a number of records for highest conversion efficiencies in various solar PV technologies over the past 20-30 years and the country continues to "punch above its weight" in this technology).
Of course, these are just two of many different efforts. Any one of these could offer quantum leap in cost-performance of solar PV. Japan will be waiting.
So even if the legacy participants in Japan's electric power industry face a relatively bleak future -- with trillions of yen of stranded assets, decades of decommissioning costs and a clean up at Fukushima that will take the rest of my lifetime and beyond, it is difficult not to be optimistic about the energy transformation that can and should occur over the next decade or two.