by Paula Mints
Few people understand the time, money and effort required to develop and manufacture high quality solar technologies. We can blame this fact on a reliance on press releases for news about the solar industry.
Manufacturers drive these misunderstanding by not properly explaining that champion results are not analogous to or in many cases near commercial viability. The PERC, passivated emitter rear contact solar cell, now gaining market traction began its long trudge to commercial competitiveness in the mid-1980s. When manufacturers announce results without fully ex-plaining these results the effect is misleading and also furthers the illusion that breakthroughs are imminent.
Elon Musk’s recent announcement about his new and innovative solar roof – which turned out to be a fact-lite announcement of a solar tile product – is another example of press that calls attention to nothing that is either new, innovative or that deserves much press coverage in the first place.
Waiting for the next technology breakthrough is like Waiting for Godot, the play by Samuel Becket about the meaningless of life and where Godot never arrives. The definition of breakthrough in the solar industry is amorphous and essentially meaningless. In reality the many profound breakthroughs that have inched the photovoltaic industry forward to where it is today – undervalued for the very technology crucial to it, the solar cell – have taken decades.
Beware of company press releases announcing future plans or stating that a company is the leader in a space. For one thing there may be only one company in the space.
There is a lot of precedent for announcing future manufacturing capacity building and for referring to the future as if it were a fait accompli. In 2014 SolarCity (SCTY) announced to great fanfare its plans for the largest solar manufacturing facility in the US, a1-GWp c-Si facility in New York. Many industry participants and observers took the announcement as proof of a US manufacturing renaissance.
Blast from the past: In April 2011 GE bought PrimeStar, a 30-MWp, pre-commercial CdTe manufacturer based in Colorado for $600-million. In its announcement GE stated that they would build the nation’s largest manufacturing facility, a 400-MWp CdTe facility in Colorado. In 2013, after failing to commercialize PrimeStar’s CdTe technology, GE sold the startup’s technology assets to First Solar in a stock deal valued at $82-million. The moral of this example is that though planning for the future is crucial, announcing these plans as fact is most often a huge mistake.
Misleading PR driven solar news has trained readers to expect a constant stream of advancements and dulled the senses to the true nature of advancement. Technology breakthroughs are, as previously indicated, years and potentially decades from idea to prototype to champion result to pilot scale production to commercial competitiveness. Advancement is driven by repeatability that is, doing the same experiment or test again and again and again and again until an average result is achieve and can be repeated – again and again.
For example, in the mid-2000s companies such as Applied Materials (AMAT), Oerlikon and others tried to leapfrog over the historic development timeline by offering turnkey manufacturing so that new entrants eager to make a buck in the photovoltaic industry could avoid years of trial and error and jump almost immediately into commercial production. Years of announcements later the turnkey PV manufacturing model is rarely mentioned.
Solar conferences compound the problem by providing little in the way of education or actual facts about technology development. Better information is available at the scientific conferences such as the IEEE PVSC but at the 2016 PVSC in Portland, Oregon an executive from Solar Frontier spent fifteen minutes describing the history of the company and leaving out salient facts such as current production costs, average prices and the commercial efficiency of its commercial CIS modules.
At the 2016 Solar Power International Conference in September during a focus group several people said that they were bored with the solar cell, referring to it as a commodity and wondering when the next breakthrough would be announced.
PR driven news cycles train us to expect giant breakthroughs where we should expect hard work. That leaves us bored even when that hard work is paying off.
Paula Mints is founder of SPV Market Research, a classic solar market research practice focused on gathering data through primary research and providing analyses of the global solar industry. You can find her on Twitter @PaulaMints1 and read her blog here.
This article was originally published in the October31st issue of SolarFlare, a bimonthly executive report on the solar industry, and is republished with permission.