David A. Madonia
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In the 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove, George C. Scott’s General Buck Turgidson, citing concerns about potential Russian advantages during a nuclear holocaust, states “we must not allow a mine shaft gap” (where survivors could escape to). This quote sticks with me when considering the current competitive nature of photovoltaic (PV) production and installations in the U.S.
and elsewhere—to survive in this highly competitive arena, we should not allow a PV gap.
But, large PV gaps already exist. At the end of 2014, China was estimated by the National Energy Administration (NEA) to have about 30 GW of PV installations, compared to 20 GW in the U.S.
And, continuing their rapid growth, China predicts they will install another 18 GW in 2015 alone,
compared to the U.S.’s installation goal of just 10 GW. China’s growth is expected to continue,
according to a forecast (by SolarBuzz), for 100 GW of installed PV systems by 2018. China’s large
population, strong energy demand and heavy air pollution have resulted in plans to outlaw
coal-burning power plants in many of its cities by 2020, with the resulting energy cuts replaced
by PV and nuclear sources.
In addition to their growing installed base, China has about two-thirds of the global PV solar
cell production capacity of about 41 GW/yr (Earth Policy Institute). Most of the top global PV
suppliers are in China or neighboring Taiwan. China’s production capacity is expected to grow
to more than 50 GW/yr by 2017. U.S. PV production capacity is much smaller, at just over 1 GW/
yr, mostly focused on high-end thin-film panels for specialized applications. China’s low-cost
manufacturing caused at least 16 U.S. PV manufacturers to close between 2011 and 2014 due to
non-competitive costs—China has been accused of dumping policies to drive competitors out of
But developing and manufacturing highly efficient advanced PVs is much more complex than
digging the mine shafts in Dr. Strangelove. And advanced PV R&D capabilities are currently much
stronger in the U.S. and Germany than in China, so the long-term outlook as PV cell technologies
advance may be a bit brighter than the current situation. But Chinese research capabilities are
gaining in this area as well, just not as fast.
A recent report by the MIT Energy Initiative, The Future of Solar Energy, notes current crystal-line-silicon (c-Si) PV devices have fixed performance limitations with little outlook for substantial
performance improvements. Recent U.S. government PV R&D funding, however, has shifted
away from basic research on advanced PV systems in favor of short-term cost reductions in current c-Si devices. The MIT study authors recommend increasing R&D funding on new thin-film
technologies to guarantee the long-term availability of these more attractive materials.
Both c-Si and thin-film PV technologies continue to change, with new efficiency records for
both types set almost weekly. The theoretical upper limit for thin-film devices is higher and
stands to perform better than c-Si devices, if the costs and material availabilities of the thin-film
devices can be controlled.
China’s Trina Solar, the largest c-Si manufacturer, recently posted a 42% annual increase in PV
shipments in 2014, and a 28% full-year increase in revenues to $2.3 billion (end-of-year increases were even larger). The company also set a new world record efficiency of 19.1% for p-type
multi-crystalline Si PV modules. At the same time as Trina’s announcement, Germany’s Manz
announced a 16% efficiency record in copper indium gallium arsenide (CIGS) PV modules, and
Taiwan’s TSMC Solar announced a 16.5% efficiency record in commercially produced CIGS modules. These companies also hold lab-based module efficiency records of 21.7%. Clearly, the technology, production and sales PV gaps (to U.S.-based efforts) are accelerating with global suppliers
now having the revenue to fund advanced technology development. Of course, PV modules only
account for about a third of PV installation costs. The remaining costs involve physical installation
and electrical inverter systems. Those services and systems are likely provided by local suppliers.
The bright side is many U.S. companies are already taking advantage of the relatively low-cost
supplies of PV modules to integrate large PV systems into their facilities. And PV technologies
and efficiencies will only improve with time, creating even better energy operations for customers. PV supply gaps are likely to continue far into the future, but users will continue to benefit.