Dog Blog

Thin-Film Solar: A Primer and a Case Study

Especially in this economic landscape, thin-film solar has become all the rage. Industry figures indicate that the annual growth rate worldwide was 60% from 2002-2007 and that is expected to grow as the production costs of thin-film solar continues to drop. Forbes recently mentioned thin-film solar as one of the “Five Technologies Set to Change the Decade”.The reasons are simple – thin-film solar brings the promise of combining the following benefits:

  • Lower Cost – Thin-film solar technologies reduce the amount of light absorbing material required in creating a solar cell. This can lead to reduced processing costs from that of bulk materials (in the case of silicon thin film)
  • Flexible and Light Weight – As opposed to bulk silicon wafers (used “traditional” solar panels), thin-film solar is considerably lighter and highly flexible, making deployment much easier.
  • Greater Efficiency – Early thin-film solar technologies tended to be less efficient at converting light to energy (an average 7% to 10%). However, many of the newer, multi-layer thin films now achieve efficiencies greater than those of bulk silicon wafers.

Thin-film solar technologies are only about five years old at this point, and as such, the economies of scale for the technology are still improving. In fact, efficiency gains and new production technologies are expected to reduce thin-film solar manufacturing costs to less than $1/Wp within the next year. As such, here at Fat Spaniel we continue to see more and more interest in thin-film solar technologies, and we continue to provide the monitoring and intelligence for these new systems as well.

Case Study

In fact, just last week one of our customers – Conergy – announced a large thin-film solar deployment in California’s San Joaquin Irrigation District (SSJID). The system is believed to be the world’s first single-axis solar tracking system featuring thin-film photovoltaic cells. The 419-kilowatt system went live in late March, and is the second phase of a 1.6 MW solar energy solution that will save the irrigation district nearly $400,000 a year in utility costs, allow it to reap millions of dollars in state cash incentives and stabilize customer costs in the midst of a state-wide water crisis.

Here’s what SSJID’s General Manager, Jeff Shields, had to say about the deployment:

“The application of thin-film on a solar tracking system as a way to optimize energy output in perennially-dusty or overcast areas is generating a great deal of excitement not only among those in areas with conditions similar to the Central Valley, but among economic policymakers and environmental stewards in Washington, D.C. We’re eager to continue our work with Conergy to bring this solution — and the important data it’s generating in our cost-benefit analysis — to light.”

According to Conergy’s Western U.S. Project Director David Vincent, market-tested First Solar thin-film modules were selected for the Phase 2 tracking solution because they perform at a lower cost-per-watt than traditional crystalline.

“Thin-film is a much more cost-effective way to generate power — and it can outperform monocrystalline in areas prone to hazy, overcast conditions — or in industries that generate dust or high degrees of air particulates,” said Vincent. “Early indications show the output per DC kW of First Solar thin-film is about 10% higher than that of crystalline,” he added.

To help SSJID monitor system output, Conergy is using our energy monitoring and intelligence solutions to monitor and manage the system. This allows Battles and the SSJID team to log onto the Web and gauge system performance from their business offices – nearly 22 miles west of the actual solar arrays. A bonus is that through the Fat Spaniel Web site, they’re also able to compare the 1 MW, Phase 1 SSJID tracking system with several other systems, among them a 1 MW fixed-axis roof-mount system on a fruit-packing house in nearby Hanford, California — a system that Conergy also installed.

We are very excited by the continued advances in thin-film solar technology, and think that the dropping production prices, ease of deployment and the increasing efficiencies will continue to drive this industry forward.

Write back to us at “dogblog at fatspaniel dot com” to share your views.

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