We keep a tally of recent record-setting solar cell and module achievements. Some of the following milestones represent "hero experiments," but nevertheless -- the numbers keep rising.
But progress on the technical front doesn't always translate to progress on the business side -- Abound Solar, now bankrupt, appeared on this list at one point. MiaSolé is a CIGS performance overachiever, but that was difficult to monetize. The future of high-performance CPV vendor Amonix is also precarious.
In the meantime, solar cell manufacturers continue to raise the bar.
The most recent breakthrough was made by Solar Frontier, in joint research with NEDO, hitting 19.7 percent efficiency for CIS thin-film cells measuring approximately 0.5 square centimeters. Solar Frontier is number two in thin-film solar and number one in the CIGS/CIS race, with 400 megawatts shipped in 2011. The firm just racked up a 17.8 percent aperture-area efficiency on a 30-centimeter-square CIS-based PV lab module last year. The result was claimed to come on a "fully integrated submodule" performed with processes "very similar to what is in place" in Solar Frontier's factories at commercial production scale, according to a release from the firm. The Japanese firm's Kunitomi factory recently built a champion module at 14.5 percent aperture efficiency, equivalent to a 13.3 percent module efficiency.
Here are some other recent announcements of record-setting results:
TSMC Solar just announced that it manufactured 14.2-percent-efficient CIGS modules using its R&D and pilot production line in Taiwan. Current production modules from TSMC are at 13 percent efficiency.
Stion recently announced a 13.4 percent module efficiency for its CIGS-based commercial modules produced at its Hattiesburg, Mississippi factory.
The firm's 145-watt module has the highest efficiency verified by NREL for a monolithically integrated CIGS module manufactured on a commercial production line, according to a release by the firm. Stion began commercial shipments from its Hattiesburg factory in the first quarter of this year. Other investors in Stion include Taiwan Semiconductor / VentureTech Alliance, Lightspeed Venture Partners, General Catalyst Partners, Braemar Energy Ventures, and AVACO.
MiaSolé (now owned by Hanergy) set a 15.5 percent efficiency mark for a flexible CIGS solar cell. Note that this is an aperture-area efficiency on a commercial-size flexible PV module with a total area of 1.68 square meters. That eclipses the 13.4 percent mark recently set by SoloPower.
MiaSolé placed third in CIGS panel production in 2011, behind Solar Frontier (at 400 megawatts) and Solibro (at 66 megawatts), according to GTM Research. The firm also recently announced a 17.3-percent-efficient champion device, while the "manufacturing process for 14 percent efficiency is now in production." The firm recently made a rare presentation in Palo Alto, California to the Silicon Valley IEEE PV Chapter. Unfortunately, the firm has also had massive layoffs as it looks for a buyer or investor.
The CEO of MiaSolé, John Carrington, notes that the firm has "been producing glass/glass at 14 percent" and would expect to be at 15 percent by the first quarter of 2013.
Heliatek set a record for organic solar cells. It's a champion cell on a small area, but it has achieved 10.7 percent efficiency. The efficiency value for the 10.7 percent champion cell would be about 9.0 percent when deposited on a flexible substrate. The question remains: can organic solar cell technology be successfully commercialized in an unforgiving solar market dominated by crystalline silicon and First Solar (NASDAQ: FSLR)? Back in late 2009, Heliatek raised $27 million to build its first factory from venture capital investors Wellington Partners, RWE Innogy Ventures, and BASF Venture Capital, as well as industrial giant Bosch.
SoloPower now boasts an NREL-measured aperture area efficiency of 13.4 percent. Module efficiency is significantly less than that. The value proposition for flexible modules from SoloPower and others is that there is less hardware required to install and the installation process is easier. This thesis has yet to be proven in volume and at scale, however. SoloPower builds flexible solar panels in a roll-to-roll electroplating process.
Suntech's (NYSE: STP) Pluto cell technology achieved a 20.3 percent efficiency for a production cell using commercial-grade p-type silicon wafers. Pluto technology is a combination of different elements which are brought together to improve cell efficiency, with 21 percent efficiency targeted within the next year. These incremental improvements include surface patterning, improved metallization, improved front metal contact dimensions, changes in dopant concentration at the emitter, and improved high-temperature performance. None of these processes come cheap. Plus, the new product has not exactly replaced Suntech's existing lines -- it appears to remain a premium product that is offered at premium prices.
First Solar (NASDAQ: FSLR) hit a new world record for CdTe PV module efficiency with a 14.4 percent total area efficiency in January. That mark comes six months after First Solar hit a CdTe solar cell efficiency of 17.3 percent. Both records were set at the firm's Perrysburg, Ohio factory.
Alta Devices' most recent gallium arsenide (GaAs)-based solar panel boasts a 23.5 percent efficiency, as verified by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The firm claims that "this is the highest solar panel efficiency yet achieved." The press release did not discuss the size of the panel, and the company has not yet responded to our inquiry.
Alta Devices has won more than $120 million in venture funding from August Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, Crosslink Capital, DAG Ventures, NEA, Presidio Ventures, Technology Partners, Dow Chemical, Aimco, Good Energies, Energy Technology Ventures, and Constellation Energy. The firm is still in the pilot manufacturing phase. Chris Norris, the CEO of Alta, has said that the company's goal is to "compete with fossil fuels without government subsidies" and get to a levelized cost of energy of $0.06 to $0.07 per kilowatt-hour. The epitaxial lift-off technique pioneered by Alta founder Eli Yablonovitch allows the firm to produce layers of GaAs that are flexible and measure only one micron in thickness.
SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWR) has been the heavyweight champion of the world when it comes to commercialized cell and module efficiencies for the last half-decade -- and by a significant measure. The company's back-contact crystalline silicon cell design, in commercial production since 2005, moves the metal contacts to the back of the wafer, maximizes the working cell area, and eliminates redundant wires. SunPower has been able to achieve consistent improvements in efficiency with each successive generation of commercialized cells, and this has translated to gains in the module arena, as well. The firm's Gen 3 cells have efficiencies in excess of 23 percent.
Solar Junction, a developer of record-setting multi-junction cells for high-concentration photovoltaic (HCPV) applications, is working with Semprius and has inked an agreement to deliver multi-megawatts of epitaxial wafers. Semprius recorded a CPV module efficiency of 33.9 percent.