CHINA: Targeting high-end solar market

CHINA: Targeting high-end solar market

China, blighted by pollution and long known for churning out cheap manufactured goods, is looking to dominate the highend of a major growth market: solar power.

Under a new program, China is pushing the industry to mass market high-performance solar cells that so far are used mainly in high-tech products such as satellites.

Making these cells more affordable could further boost a sector that has already disrupted global electricity generation. Under its 2017 Top Runner Program, China’s National Energy Administration plans to add 8 to 10 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity to its existing 80 GW.

“This shift … could have far-reaching implications for the global solar industry, especially vaulting China into the top ranks of countries pursuing solar R&D [research and development],” Stanford University said in its 2017 solar industry report.

World solar power generation capacity has ballooned to about 300 GW from just 1 GW in 2000, according to International Renewable Energy Agency data, and is set to double again by 2020.

That growth has largely relied on multicrystalline silicon photovoltaic cells, sometimes called polycrystalline, in which solar units consist of multiple silicon crystallines.

These have been cheaper to produce than the more efficient monocrystalline cells, which are made from single crystalline units.

Prices, however, are now converging. Energy Trend, a consultancy, says the average price of a Chinese high-efficiency, multicrystalline cell is now U.S. $0.225 per watt, compared to just U.S. $0.319 for high-efficiency, monocrystalline cells.

The use of monocrystalline technology is likely to increase as the cost differential narrows, meaning a higher efficiency can be had at a similar price.

Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy, a leader in solar development, said in July 2017 the record laboratory efficiency for monocrystalline was 26.7 percent per cell, versus 21.9 percent for multicrystalline.

Solar cell development doesn’t end with monocrystalline cells, and China’s competitors aren’t sitting idle.

Fraunhofer has developed so-called multijunction cells with an efficiency of 46 percent, and U.S. aerospace giant Boeing’s Spectrolab is developing cells with similar efficiency.  Reuters