Los Angeles -- Will SunPower be the first large solar module maker to get gung-ho about concentrators?
The company -- a leader in high-efficiency solar cells -- has concocted a concentrator in its labs that can increase the sunlight striking a panel by a factor of 6 to 7, according to Howard Wenger, president of the utility business unit at SunPower. SunPower already has a version of the device running at Sandia National Labs.
“We want to drive it to [price] parity with existing technologies or better,” Wenger said during an interview at Solar Power International, which is now taking place in Los Angeles. With concentrators, SunPower could create solar parks “using one-seventh the PV material,” he said.
The concentrator -- a set of reflectors that directs sunlight to solar cells -- would effectively allow the company to increase the power output of its utility-scale solar plants at a time when gaining efficiency the old-fashioned way is becoming challenging. SunPower will soon mass produce monocrystalline solar cells with an efficiency rating of over 23 percent and has demonstrated new cells in the lab that can hit 24 percent. The achievable maximum for this type of solar cells is 25 percent, SunPower CEO Tom Werner told us earlier this year.
The concentrator could essentially act as a work-around, allowing solar cells already near the limits of physically possible efficiency to generate more power. Earlier this year, Werner indicated that the company was looking at concentrators as a way around this problem.
If SunPower goes forward with this plan, it would be a big boost for the fledging concentrator industry. Concentrators were developed in the middle part of the decade as a way to ameliorate the high price of silicon. When polysilicon prices dropped, investors lost interest, making concentrators another one of greentech’s zero-billion-dollar industries. Still, interest in the technology has recently begun to bloom again and concentrators are one of the big topics at the conference; Soliant, for example, debuted a 1000x concentrating module at the show.
Besides increasing the sunlight that hits a solar panel and thus increasing the energy output, the concentrator actually increases the efficiency of the company’s modules, Wenger said. Ironically, SunPower originally began as a concentrator company way back in the mists of time (1985).
The product, however, is still in the R&D phase, so no product rollouts are ready yet. In other SunPower news:
--The company is pushing Oasis, its solar-power-plant-in-a-box. Oasis units can generate one megawatt of power. More importantly, Oasis is produced in a factory, thereby cutting down costs related to work in the field, transportation and other logistics. The company estimates that Oasis can curb costs by 20 percent to 25 percent.
--SunPower wants to hit $1 per watt by 2014. Yes, First Solar is already at 76 cents per watt, but SunPower claims that its cells' far greater efficiency helps to reduce overall land and deployment costs.
--The company is working with Taiwan’s AU Optoelectronics on wringing out the costs of producing its solar modules in a venture in Kuala Lumpur. AU is an expert in mass manufacturing and SunPower says it has the solar part down pat.