When it comes to lowering the costs of photovoltaics, production scale is the key driver, according to a new study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). That, not lower labor costs or government subsidies, is the key driver behind the lower-cost photovoltaics coming from China, the study found. It also found that similar results could be produced in the U.S.
"Our analysis finds that investments in technology research and development are critical not only to the widespread deployment of solar PV in most locations, without subsidy, but also may equalize factors that affect regional competitiveness, thus creating opportunities for U.S.-based manufacturers," NREL Senior Analyst Alan Goodrich said. "The race for cost-competitive clean energy from the sun is far from over and incredible growth opportunities remain."
The study, "Assessing the Drivers of Regional Trends in Solar Photovoltaic Manufacturing," funded by the Energy Department’s Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative, was published September 5 in Energy & Environmental Science. In the study, the researchers created models to investigate what caused the PV industry to shift from a global industry to one dominated by China. They found that Chinese PV manufacturers currently have a 23 percent minimum sustainable price (MSP) advantage over U.S.-based PV manufacturers. The advantage excludes shipping costs but takes into account differences in module, wafer and cell manufacturing costs in both countries. The majority of the reason for China’s dominance in the industry stems from its efforts to ramp up production scale, the study found, yet it was also offset by other factors like investment risk and inflation.
The report also revealed that Chinese dominance could be challenged. “Technology innovation and global supply chain development could enable increased manufacturing scale around the world, resulting in broader, subsidy-free PV deployment and the potential for manufacturing price parity in most regions,” it said. The researchers found that innovations in crystalline silicon solar cell technology could spur investment and ease access to funds for manufacturers to scale up, and bring the costs of PV manufacturing down in the U.S.
“Practical technological innovation is a key driver to accelerate the convergence between photovoltaics and traditional energy sources, both in terms of price and scale,” said Tonio Buonassisi, associate professor at MIT and co-author of the study. He said solar panels with high-quality, high-efficiency, low material costs and streamlined, scalable manufacturing processes are the “holy grail” of the PV industry.
"Innovation is critical to driving the technological advancements that can position the U.S. to gain greater market share in the global PV supply chain," said David Danielson, Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the Energy Department. "We believe that innovation could drive down costs and drive up efficiencies not only in PV manufacturing, but also in the production of other high-tech and high-value clean energy technologies, and position U.S.-based manufacturers to be leaders in one of the most important global economic races of the 21st century."