As the solar industry and photovoltaic module industry matures, incremental improvements become more and more important. Barring a black swan technological event that disrupts the current cost and efficiency trajectory, module vendors are fighting for every tiny advantage in cost reduction and performance improvement.

Andrew Beebe, Chief Commercial Officer at Suntech Power, has remarked that a cost reduction of even one-tenth of a cent is worthy of attention at that leading solar firm.

Genie Lens Technology claims that they can improve module efficiency and power harvest significantly. And now NREL has verified those claims. 

According to today's press release, "In outdoor tests performed by NREL ... the overall energy production of the PV modules tested up to 4 percent with performance improvements for all irradiance ranges. The largest improvements, up to 40 percent, occurred for higher angles of incidence under clear skies."

Those are pretty significant numbers.

I spoke with the CEO of Genie, Seth Weiss, who said that not only was efficiency improved, but just as importantly, there was an increase in power output. Weiss suggested that this type of improved power harvest at peak times of energy demand and peak sun would have been helpful during the recent stress placed on the Texas power grid.  

Genie Lens is the company, SolOptics their solar division, and Fusion is the lens design that CEO Seth Weiss is working to license. The firm is a product of a group of optics experts who are already in the business of designing lenses and holograms for printed lenses and labels for anti-counterfeiting applications.

These big improvements in solar panel performance come from a texturing process that improves "lightray management" and can be used on polymer or glass. Weiss suggested that eventually textured polymer could replace the glass front cover sheet on a PV module, yielding improved performance at a lower weight and a reduced balance-of-system cost.

The company's core skill is the ray-tracing software they've developed. This enables the user of the software to create microstructures that can be embossed or cast into a thin polymer film and then adhered to a PV panel, either in the factory or in the field -- much in the same way that tinting film is applied to a window. The structure can also be rolled onto the photovoltaic glass itself.

The startup doesn't want to be the sales arm for the end product, but rather wants to license the design to a large manufacturer early in the food chain. Prime candidates are companies like Saint-Gobain in the glass world or 3M and Dow in the plastic film and encapsulant field.  The licensing model could work; Innovalight started out that way before their sale to DuPont. Other products in the "we'll increase your photovoltaic efficiency" business would include Xerocoat's anti-reflective coatings and Banyan Energy's lens systems.

Weiss intimated that he was deep in the due diligence process with several potential licensing partners. He remarked that he was seeing a "huge push" by materials giants like 3M, DuPont, and Saint-Gobain to go with polymer on the front of the solar module. This encapsulation process and material has always been expensive and a potential reliability risk. Weiss claims that his firm's process has a production cost of less than one cent per watt and that module enhancement needs to happen at the materials level -- not just at the cell level.

Three factors in the lensing design account for the efficiency improvement that SolOptics has achieved:

  • Improved TIR provides a greater likelihood of absorption
  • Anti-reflective characteristic -- the geometry on the surface creates an improved acceptance angle when light is off-center, capturing more off-angle sunlight
  • Most importantly, the path of the light is lengthened -- the longer the light ray, the more electrons stimulated and the more electricity generated

The small startup is funded by the its founders and angel investors.