Suntech Power said Wednesday it has outdone itself by setting a new world record for multicrystalline silicon solar panels that could convert 16.53 percent of the sunlight that fall on them into electricity.
The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Germany measured the efficiency, an independent verification that is crucial for Suntech to stake the claim.
Just last month, the Chinese company said it had broken a 15-year-old record held by the Sandia National Laboratories by achieving 15.6 percent efficiency with its multicrystalline silicon panels. Sandia's measured at 15.5 percent.
The solar panels used for both tests made use of Suntech's Pluto cells, a new product that the company began shipping earlier this year.
The underlying technology for Pluto came from research at the University of New South Wales in Australia, where Suntech's CEO, Zhengrong Shi, earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and where he was a researcher for years. The company's chief technology officer, Stuart Wenham, also is a professor and research director at the university.
Suntech is eager to distinguish its Pluto cells from the host of other competing products in the market today. Most of the solar cells on the market today use silicon, and multicrystalline silicon cells are more common than the more expensive monocrystalline silicon cells.
Boosting Pluto's efficiency is key to making it attractive to buyers and in lowering its production costs. It should be noted that efficiency records touted by solar companies tend to refer to the best that they can produce, rather than what they could roll out of factories consistently.
UPDATE: Suntech is testing its Pluto panels with multicrystalline silicon cells, and it expects the panels to achieve an average efficiency of 15.5 percent, said Steve Chadima, vice president of external affairs at Suntech. The company already has completed certification testing for its Pluto panels with monocrystalline silicon cells and is producing them in volume, and those panels have an average efficiency of 16.5 percent.
Whether the costs are low enough for Suntech to put a competitive pricing on its solar panels remains to be seen.
Deploying a new technology requires new equipment and efforts to fix manufacturing glitches that typically crop up early on, and those factors generally make the initial volume of products more expensive.
In August this year, Shi told financial analysts that the company had to overcome an automation problem with assembling Pluto cells into panels, an issue that prompted Suntech to lower its shipment forecast (see Suntech: Chinese Market No So Large This Year).
In March, Suntech said it expected to ship 50 megawatts of panels featuring the new Pluto cells by the end of 2009.
Now it expects to ship 10 megawatts to 15 megawatts instead. The company had installed 100 megawatts of cell production capacity by the end of the second quarter.
The company is set to have both 300 megawatts of cell production capacity and panel assembly capacity by the end of this year, Wenham said earlier this year.
Before launching Pluto, Suntech, which is one of the largest solar panel makers in the world, had already built 1 gigawatt of production capacity with its older technology. The company plans to convert existing lines for producing Pluto cells and panels.
Although Suntech has manufacturing might, it still faces fierce competition from fellow silicon solar cell and panel makers such as SunPower, Sharp and SolarWorld.
Silicon prices have fallen by as much as 50 percent over the past year, making it possible for companies to wage a price war in key markets such as Europe.
The competition has been so intense that some Germany solar companies and lawmakers have rallied for policies to deal with what they believe are artificially low prices set by some of the Chinese companies to flood the German market, which is the largest in the world.