While rigid silicon solar panels dominate solar energy industry, flexible solar panels and cells have multiple uses and will prove valuable in certain markets, a new report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found. The report identified three key markets where flexible solar will prove more valuable in the near future, but one key concern is keeping it light, as in weight.
While the market for silicon solar panels has matured and they make up about 95 percent of the global solar market, emerging technologies will provide more flexible options as the solar panels themselves can be flexible. NREL’s report singled out cadmium telluride (CdTe), copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS), perovskite crystal and emerging solar technologies as technologies that can power aerospace and unmanned drones, portable charging and transportation.
The lab published its findings “Increasing Markets and Decreasing Package Weight for High Specific Power Photovoltaics" in a new Nature Energy paper. For thin-film solar, NREL said lightweight, flexible PV needs to hit weight ratios of between 300 and 500 grams per square meter. At that weight ratio a solar module weighing the same as a six pack of soda could generate more than a kilowatt of electricity. For conventional silicon solar panels to generate 1 kilowatt of electricity it requires 150 to 200 pounds of material.
“We explore the limits behind power-to-weight ratios and how this can generate value for emerging players in photovoltaics to enable them to reach gigawatt scale without having to directly compete with silicon solar panels,” said Matthew Reese, an NREL researcher and lead author of the paper.
In aerospace and unmanned vehicle applications lightweight and efficiency are paramount. Reducing weight for satellites helps reduce the high costs of launching them. Similarly powering long-duration drones is made easier by keeping their weight down.
Flexible solar also will be valuable for portable charging. Inexpensive, lightweight flexible solar panels can be installed on packs bags and devices to help charge personal devices. They can Also be installed on tents and tarps which is already proving valuable in military and disaster relief operations.
Another place where flexible solar panels will shine is in transportation applications. Already automotive companies like Kia and Hyundai are already looking to install solar on their vehicles. Flexible solar panels and cells can conform to the roofs, trunks and hoods of vehicles to help extend driving ranges more than silicon can.
The researchers identified three high-value markets, each with a potential to cumulatively generate a gigawatt (GW) of electricity—at a price above $1 a watt—over the next 10 years:
The researchers identified these markets as smaller but significant and ones that will pay a premium for the added value of the technology being lightweight to support initial, low-scale production. As production increases, lower costs will follow.
These types of applications will prove valuable at a cost of over $1 a watt over the next decade, which is higher than is expected for silicon solar. The markets will pay a premium for the technologies for their added value and will help support low-scale production and support the ramping up of production, lowering the costs of the technologies further.Tweet