Category Archives: Manufacturing

The Rise and Fall (and possible resurrection) of Thin-Film Solar Technology

Solar powered calculator

A tiny strip of thin film powers this calculator.

Thin-film solar technology has been around for quite some time and most of us have benefited from it’s use. Thin-film is most commonly used to power small hand-held calculators and watches and is created by depositing a number of thin layers of photovoltaic material onto a solar wafer. More recently, thin-film PV has become available in larger module form and is being used for building integrated installations (like this) and vehicle charging systems. Thin-film PV has grown in popularity due to its sleek look and light weight, which reduces the cost of installation and allows solar installations in areas not traditionally suited for large solar panels.

  • From 2004 to 2009 shipments of thin-film PV grew from 68 MW to 2 GW.
  • The market share for thin-film decreased to 11% in 2011. Down from 18% in 2009.
  • Thin-film solar panel sales reached $4.53 billion in 2010 but are expected to drop to $2.9 billion in 2012.

This decline in thin-film solar panel sales is due in part to the dramatic price drops in crystalline PV technology (the main alternative to thin film) the past few years. The price advantage thin-film panels held over crystalline technology is no longer relevant and the fact the crystalline PV panels are generally more efficient have given them the recent edge over thin-film technology.

First Solar – Headquartered in Tempe, Arizona. They posted their second-ever loss in Q1 2012 and they also recently closed down their Germany factory and fired 30% of their workforce. First Solar anticipates producing 1500 to 1800 megawatts this year. (Green Tech Media)

Nanosolar – Headquartered in San Jose, California. This company has an ink-based solar technology that won the Innovation of the Year Award from Popular Science in 2007. They have recently secured funding to pursue the development of large scale solar systems that will cost no more per watt than conventional electricity and they have passed critical milestones to meet that goal by 2015 – a promising report. (Clean Technica)
 

Solar manufacturers had a tough time staying afloat in 2011. Chinese solar companies were accused of dumping solar panels in the U.S. at lower prices than the cost of manufacturing and in turn forced many manufacturers to file for bankruptcy or close down plants/cut their workforce. The most newsworthy of this bunch was Solyndra but other manufacturers closed down as well, including Evergreen Solar, Energy Conversion Devices, and SpectraWatt.

This does not bode well, especially for thin-film manufacturers, who are struggling to keep up with price drops and efficiency increases. However, all is not lost. According to GTM Research:

” Venture capital investment into thin film in Q4 2011 and Q1 2012 combined to reach nearly $300 million. Solar Frontier continues to ramp up its GW-scale CIGS facility. Tokyo Electron bought Oerlikon Solar for $275 million, affirming long-term faith in the thin-film silicon manufacturing space. With CdTe, GE continues to invest heavily in Primestar, and First Solar still intends to open new capacity in Vietnam and Mesa, Arizona.”

It seems that if a handful of thin-film manufacturers can weather the current storm then they can hopefully restore some life to the industry by continuing to create innovation solar panels that push the limits of size, weight, cost, and efficiency.

Additional Resources:

Forbes “First Solar Struggles Amid Decline of Thin-Film Solar Market”
GreenTech Solar “Nanosolar Scores $20M to Keep Its CIGS PV Dream Alive”
GTM Research ” Thin Film 2012-2016: Technologies, Markets and Strategies for Survival”
How Stuff Works “Production of Thin-Film Solar Cells”
NREL “Thin Film CIGS and CdTe Photovoltaic Technologies”
Wikipedia  “Thin Film Solar Cell”
Uni-Solar Thin Film residential installation

5.6 KW Uni-Solar system in Heillbronn, Germany (Photo Courtesy of Rheinzink GmbH & Co.)

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The Sustainable World of Packing Peanuts and Bubble Wrap

Here at PNS Energy we ship and receive enough packing peanuts, bubble wrap, cardboard, foam, and plastic to last a lifetime.  Shipping practices are oftentimes the most flexible part of the order processing procedure, yet it is widely known that the packaging and shipping arm of most companies are fairly unsustainable. We have all experienced the shocking feeling of opening up a package and wondering why 6 billion foam peanuts were used to ship a candle, then outraged when it is discovered that those peanuts are Styrofoam and cannot be recycled or composted.

We know first hand that the elimination of packaging all-together is highly unlikely (solar cells break very easily) but we can continually strive to become more efficient in our packing and selection of materials. We are seeing more and more companies and individuals that use recyclable or reusable material in their shipping and packing processes. With that said, I believe there is great potential and opportunity for us to come up with a widespread solution to sustainable packaging. This is something that should, and could easily be accomplished right now. Innovative people and leading companies are already developing shipping and packaging alternatives that will hopefully change how the world views product transportation. Here are just a few of those excellent ideas and companies that are taking sustainable packaging to the next level:

  1. Ecovative DesignEcocradle Mushroom Packaging is perhaps one of the most innovative products I’ve seen that involves mushrooms. This packaging material is “grown” from crop waste and is 100% renewable and biodegradable. Apparently they create the material by growing mycelium, a fungal network of threadlike cells, around crop waste like”buckwheat husks, oat hulls, or cotton burrs.” It takes 5-7 days to grow and they can make almost any shape to meet the packaging requirement so maybe someday we will be shipping our Anywhere Solar Modules in some Mushroom Packaging!

    EcoCradle vs. Styrofoam

    EcoCradle squares off vs. Styrofoam

  2. Eco.Bottle – The Eco.Bottle is distributed by Berlin Packaging and created by Ecologic Brands Inc. It is a molded fiber bottle made from “recycled corrugated cardboard and newspapers.” The shell is 100% recyclable and compostable while the inside features a recyclable inner plastic pouch system. With this design, the bottle uses up to 70% less plastic than traditional bottles. I have yet to see any Eco.Bottles in the supermarket but apparently it is being used by Seventh Generation for their Natural 4X laundry detergent and will hopefully be used for a wide variety of beverages, personal care products, paints and stains in the near future.
    Eco.Bottle and Seventh Generation

    The entire packaging system uses 66% less plastic than a typical 100 oz 2X laundry bottle. -Seventhgeneration.com

    These two products are just an example of the progress companies are making in the realm of sustainable packaging. There are many more organizations out there that are changing the packaging game for good so that in the future, all packaging will be environmentally responsible and more efficient (Here is a list of companies that offer certified compostable packaging materials).

    In closing I leave you with the vision of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition: Sustainable packaging should be “sourced responsibly, designed to be effective and safe throughout its life cycle, meets market criteria for performance and cost, is made entirely using renewable energy, and once used, is recycled efficiently to provide a valuable resource for subsequent generations.”

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Filed under Conservation, Manufacturing, Recycle, Recycled Materials, Responsible Materials, Supply Chain Management, Sustainable Businiess

Solar Manufacturing Snapshot

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Filed under Infographic, Manufacturing, Photography, Renewable Energy, Solar