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Mixed Greens: Suntech sets solar cell efficiency record

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Suntech, the world’s largest manufacturer of solar PV modules, and the world-leading solar PV research team at the University of NSW have set a new world record for conversion efficiency for solar cells. The news was planned to be announced next week, but was revealed by Suntech CEO (and former UNSW researcher) Zhengrong Shi during the company’s earnings call on Thursday, when he said 20.3 per cent conversion efficiency had been achieved on a commercial p-type wafer suitable for mass production.

Renate Egan, the managing director of Suntech R&D Australia, a 20-strong team that works closely with the group at UNSW, says the record was achieved with the so-called “second generation” of the Pluto high-efficiency solar cells. It beats the previous record of 19.6 per cent. As efficiency increases, then the cost of production falls. According to a paper published by the research team in late February, they are now targeting an efficiency rate of up to 23 per cent.

The technology originates from the PERL solar cell design developed by the world-leading team at UNSW and Suntech in 2001, which has since been commercialized by Suntech as part of its Pluto high-efficiency solar brand. The technology offers improvements in the screen-printing processes,and reduces the amount of metal needed to form efficient contacts. Reducing the metal coverage allows more of the cell surface to be exposed to sunlight allowing more current to be generated. The second generation technology which has delivered this latest record, Egan says, have been focused on improvements to the rear-surface design.

The latest record was achieved late last year and documented in an academic paper published in late February. According to this document, the next stage of Pluto development will focus on advances – in minimising series resistance and keeping the  the percentage of the metal/silicon area to around 1 per cent – which could deliver  efficiencies of at least 21.5 per cent, “which when combined with expected further improvement in rear surface passivation, could take corresponding cell efficiencies to approaching 23 per cent.”

Suntech says that about 400MW of its total 2,400MW production in 2011 was in the high efficiency cells, and this is expected to double to around 800MW in the current year, when overall production will remain stable. Suntech, along with listed renewable energy developer Infigen Energy, has submitted an updated offer for the federal government’s solar flagships program. The venture plans to use the first generation Pluto cells for the project if it wins the tender.

Equity boost for FRV

Spanish group FRV, the major equity partner in the proposed 150MW Moree Solar Project, has received a funding after striking a deal with Denham Capital, a US-based energy focused private equity firm, to invest $US190 million in solar energy projects across the globe. FRV said the partnership will strengthen its ability to invest in the global solar market in Australia as well as South Africa, Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East. The partnership will also consider acquisitions.

FRV and Australia’s Pacific Hydro were forced to lift their equity contributions to the Moree Solar project after the withdrawal of BP Solar, and the failure to secure financing for the project. The tender for a government grant under the Solar Flagships program was re-opened, and Moree Solar, along with three other consortium, have resubmitted their bids. It is thought that Moree have cut the capital cost of project, which was orginally $930 million, and the other bidders have also reduced their cost estimates following the sharp slump in the cost of solar PV modules in the past year.

FRV says it has participated in the development, construction and financing of more than 350 MW of solar energy plants currently operational in the United States, Spain and Italy and since its inception in 2006, and has a pipeline of more than 1.5GW.  Denham Capital will become an anchor investor in the projects, alongside Spanish private equity firm Qualitas Equity Partners and FRV’s founding members.

Emerging Renewables grant unleashed
The first grant of the $126 million Emerging Renewables Fund has been announced, some 18 months after it was first created, with $1.9 million to go to a $5 million program by NICTA, Australia’s ICT Research Centre of Excellence, to use “big data analytics” to locate geothermal energy sources beneath the surface. The program will use teams from the University of Sydney, the Schools of Earth Science at the Australian National University, University of Melbourne and University of Adelaide to apply various methods to the problem of identifying geothermal targets, without the need for drilling.  The program seeks to find “better, automated ways” to define geothermal targets, using “machine learning techniques and advanced data analytics instead of drills.The program will also work with listed companies Geodynamics and Petratherm, as well as GeoScience Australia and the South Australian Department of Manufacturing, Innovation Trade Resources and Energy.
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  • superlitebeer

    .the future looks bright….sunglasses anyone ?

  • SolarSam

    how can they be producing cells at 19-20% but the hiPerforma modules only be at 15.1-15.7%? Isn’t that gap “too big”? When I look at other cell and module makers, the gap is only about 2 percentage points.

    • Scott

      SolarSam, the difference you ask about is typical with all manufacturers. Efficiency is determined as energy out vs energy in, for a given unit area. When they measure cells for efficiency, only the active cell area is included. However when they measure the module efficiency, the area includes the frame and all the sections between the cells. Since these are regions which do not generate energy, they cause a reduction in the calculated efficiency.

      So to answer your question, they cell has the same energy production whether as a cell or module. The difference is merely a difference in how efficiency is calculated.

      Hope that helps.