Today, SolarCity revealed its newest solar panel, which the company says is the most efficient rooftop solar panel in the world. The panel hit 22.04 percent efficiency according to third-party testing. The unit is the same size as standard efficiency models, but produces 30 to 40 percent more power. According to SolarCity, the new panel can produce more electricity per square foot than any other rooftop unit on the market.
While other solar technologies have hit higher efficiency levels, these units are not designed for residential rooftop applications. Residential rooftop panels usually have an efficiency between 11 and 17 percent.
The new panel may break another record as well, as the company plans to make it the highest-volume solar panel made in the U.S. SolarCity plans to build the majority of the units at their 1 GW factory in Buffalo, New York. The company projects it will be making 9,000 to 10,000 units per day, once that facility reaches capacity, and will be able to build the new units at the same cost as standard efficiency panels thanks to a new production process. Jonathan Bass, SolarCity’s Vice President of Communications, told TreeHugger that the facility is expected to be at capacity by 2017.
Initially, SolarCity will begin by making small batches next month at a pilot facility in Fremont, California. The company will begin installing the new panels on special projects where high-efficiency panels are most necessary, due to the initial limited quantity.
“In the short term, it won’t be a situation where a customer will say, ‘I want that panel,’” explained Bass. Instead, the company will use the panels for projects with particular space constraints and the need to generate more power.
Because the majority of SolarCity users are not paying for equipment or installation, Bass said the new panels aren’t expected to have an impact on the cost to the user. “If anything, long-term, we’re hopeful we can lower the cost to the customer, or at least offer solar power in more places than we do today,” he said.
“We expect it will allow us to offer solar electricity at a discount to utility power in more places,” Bass said.
SolarCity held a conference with CEO Lyndon Rive and Chairman Elon Musk today in New York City following the announcement. "This is the most advanced solar panel in the world," said Musk.
In some cases the new panel may make solar more feasible for some areas than it was before. At the event, Rive said that the panels SolarCity currently uses can meet 70 to 80 percent of customers' energy needs, so from a technological standpoint there aren’t many circumstances where the new panel will enable solar where it wasn’t feasible before. “Only in certain circumstances are there the constraints where this will make a difference,” said Rive, but they predict the new panels will now meet 80 to 90 percent of energy needs.
“The biggest place where we’ll move the needle is cost,” said Rive. Thanks to vertical integration, the company has been able to keep installer wages high while improving efficiency. Rive said that the company’s goal is by 2017 to bring their cost down to $2.50 per watt, while right now their cost is at about $2.90 cents per watt, and down to $2.30 in the future even if federal tax credits are removed.
Although Rive described the federal tax credits as the “right policy,” he said the ideal scenario would take away tax credits for solar and instead tax “unpriced externalities”—or in other words, carbon emissions.
Musk said there were a number of reasons SolarCity decided to invest in solar panel research and development, including the need to improve efficiency and to avoid any concerns about importing panels. Other panel suppliers “weren’t pushing hard enough to improve the aesthetics of the panels,” he said.
Rive said that the biggest challenge SolarCity is facing right now is consumer education. “It blows my mind how hard this is,” Rive said, specifically about SolarCity’s power purchase agreements, where the company maintains ownership of the system but sells solar energy to the homeowner at a lower cost.
“The best way to get it communicated is though referrals, or face-to-face interaction,” said Rive. “Once you have this face-to-face interaction, you get ten minutes into the conversation, and you have them ask, ‘So, why isn’t everyone doing this?”