Less Energy During Manufacturing = Cheaper Solar PanelsSolar photovoltaic (PV) technology is one of the cleanest ways to make electricity, even when the whole life cycle impact is taken into account. But despite that, the manufacturing process to make solar panels is fairly energy-intensive, which means that there's room for improvement. A good thing could be made even better. That's exactly what the smart folks at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory are doing, and one way they have found to both reduce the energy required to make a solar cell and to make the solar cell itself more efficient is to use an optical furnace to heat up the silicon substrate with which the panel is made.
Cheaper & Better Solar PanelsIndeed, the scientists and engineers at NREL have found that rather than use a conventional furnace to heat up silicon to 1000+ degrees celsius, they could could use a special optical furnace that they have developed. It heats up the silicon with powerful lights, and uses about half the energy of a conventional furnace. On top of that, it's better at removing impurities from the silicon, which leads to more efficient solar panels:
The work is at an early stage—so far the researchers have only improved the efficiency of the resulting solar cells by half a percentage point. But based on lab tests, they think they can increase the efficiency by four percentage points, from about 16 percent efficient to 20 percent, which would be a big deal in the solar industry, which celebrates even half-a-percent increases.
Hopefully this optical furnace process can be rolled out commercially as fast as possible so that we can all benefit from cheaper solar panels.
A Bright Future for Solar PowerAll of these solar technology breakthroughs and incremental improvements and refinements that make the manufacturing, installation, and operation of solar power cheaper are adding up over time, and they show no sign of stopping. They point to a future where solar power might cost a lot less than $1 per installed watt and the capacity of the world's solar manufacturers will be an ever-increasing number of gigawatts per year.
This isn't a panacea, as storage remains a big challenge and solar power works best when combined with efficiency and other clean sources, but it's more encouraging than if the state of solar technology had been stagnating during the past decade. We shouldn't take sustained progress for granted; it doesn't happen magically, which is why we need to keep funding energy R&D at the private and public levels (as Bill Gates recently urged us to do). It's not even that expensive compared to other expenses that don't bring any long-term benefits...