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Solar panel technology takes quantum leap?

Everybody is boggling over the sudden news about a whole new generation of solar panels that have burst upon us from South Africa. So they’re discussed very tentatively (see below). The news first broke in South Africa on February 11, and was reported in Treehugger on Feb 16.

If this is really true, this is the beginning of a new and different world. It’d be nice if we could keep the oil addicts from turning it all gross and greasy, like everything else they touch.

From Pure Energy Systems wiki:

Professor Vivian Alberts of the University of Johannesburg . . . and his team seem to have developed a flexible, thin, metal alloy that is “photo-responsive”. This alloy is said to result in panels with are only 5 micron thick (compared to a human hair at 20 microns, and silicon photovoltaic cells at 350 microns.) Earlier reports (in 2004) indicated the alloy was copper-indium(gallium)-diselenide (CIGS), with another article inferring the panels would have a useful life of about 20 years, with the energy in fabricating them recovered within the first 1-2 years of operation. And that the materials used could all be later recycled to make fresh cells. It is said that a standard family home would need around 30m/sq (“(about the size of a living room”) of CIGS solar panels to meet all its electricity demands.

Unspecified new storage devices (batteries of some sort) and converters have been created alongside these new cells to store the collected energy. It is suggested these new panels can generate electricity even during winter, not requiring direct sunlight to function. Seemingly German investors are behind establishing European plants, which will be producing 1,000 such panels per day, with local South African factories also be contemplated. Much Thanks to TH Tipster Conrad Z. for pointing us to the piece in the ::Cape Argus.

Update, March 20,2006

The “improved solar panels” mystery grows a bit less mysterious. Via Treehugger comments and other sources, the following more detailed info is available.

Eskom (South Africa Electricity Supply Co.) provided some specifics about the panels in June 2005, (information that could, of course, be out of date by now).

Each 60-W panel to be produced is 1,2 m 5 500 mm in size. “The pilot plant has shown the production cost per watt to be €0,95, verified for a 25-MW production facility, assuming a 10% efficiency and average production yield of 85%,” says Alberts.

This means a 60-W panel would cost around R490, or R8 a watt [which equals approx. $1.27 per watt, compared to current technology costing about $5 per watt].

At the moment, intellectual property resides with PT IP Holdco, a company created by the University of Johannesburg.

Arthur Matteson, an electrical engineering graduate student at Michigan State University, noted in comments that the output of the early versions of the panels is similar to current silicon-based panels of similar size, ie 10% rather than 30%. However, cost is noticeably lower.

IFE is the German company that entered into a licensing agreement with PTIP and will be making the panels. (Web site is in German.)

From the company’s press release (pdf) comes the following, possibly rosy, information:

[my translation of small parts of the pdf]

aleo solar GmbH [IFE’s manufacturing subsidiary, I believe] has 16% of market share for silicon-based solar panel manufacture in Germany, and will be making the new panels. It is currently [“Spring 2006” is all it says] building the factory in Brandenburg an der Havel with a 30MW capacity, and expects to start delivering product in mid 2007. In 2009, the company expects to have expanded to a 60 MW capacity.

Eskom in South Africa is also supposed to be producing commercial quantities in the near future. On Eskom’s site, there is also mention of an Australian company producing the panels at some point.

Next year [ie 2006], if all goes according to plan, a full-size plant is to be constructed within South Africa.

This plant will be the first production line of solar panels in Africa. Another plant, in Germany, is set to follow [the Germans seem to be beating them to it], and then possibly yet another, in Australia.

The plan is for any one plant to produce 400,000 60-W panels a year, in order to make up a production capacity of 25 MW per plant.

Technorati tags: solar energy, photovoltaics, Vivian Alberts, energy, oil