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SolFocus calls for more solar cell producers

The solar system maker urges III-V cell companies to up their game, after its technology qualifies for more financial incentives and shows good results at a pivotal test installation.

Californian photovoltaic system producer SolFocus achieved two key goals in September to enhance the reputation of its compound semiconductor-centered approach as a serious rival to existing solar technologies.

The most overt public recognition came with the listing of Solfocus systems as eligible for incentives from the California Solar Initiative. This will provide an immediate stimulus to customers planning to deploy the company's concentrating photovoltaic (CPV) systems, according to marketing vice president Nancy Hartsoch.

“A lot of projects are depending on the rebates for their return on investment,” she told compoundsemiconductor.net. The listing demands extensive safety and performance testing, and SolFocus had to help develop the testing criteria in becoming the first CPV company to attain this status.

“California s important because it leads the US in those types of standards and metrics, and often gives you access to the rest of the south west,” explained Hartsoch.

“Interestingly it even mattered to a lot of the developers in Europe that we were able to get that listing. So aside from the financial side it s a credibility validation "“ this technology is really commercial and real and ready to be deployed.”

Hartsoch points out that the emerging CPV tests are designed to measure the systems at typical operating temperatures. This contrasts with other photovoltaics, which are tested in short-duration flash tests. Photovoltaic cells tend to lose efficiency as their temperature increases, meaning that a flash-tested system s rated output can be up to 20 percent higher than its performance at a realistic operating temperature.

The CPV tests accuracy have now been validated in SolFocus other key September development, the completion of its installation at the ISFOC CPV demonstration project in Spain.

“It was pretty exciting for us to have our panels performing at and above their rated levels,” Hartsoch explained. “Those were rated levels set a year and a half, two years ago.”

“It s a pretty strong story for the technology and its ability to perform at [high] temperature.”

Forecast: Gloomy?
Earlier on in the month Eric Wesoff, a senior analyst at Greentech Media predicted that of the 25 companies he listed in the CPV industry, only about ten percent were likely to succeed. “At least 20 of these companies are doomed,” he wrote in Greentech's “Green Light” blog.

However, the Prometheus Institute, a non-profit organization for sustainable development with close links to Greentech Media, has also predicted that the CPV market will reach 6 GW by 2020. On the basis of this kind of outlook, Hartsoch is bullish.

“The market is huge,” she said. “If we can meet our goal of reaching grid parity by 2012-2015, it s bigger than huge. So does it take just five successful companies? No, I m not sure that they can build enough capacity.”

To SolFocus the major concern about industry size is ensuring there is a supply chain sufficiently large and healthy to meet demand and keep improving performance. Here is where companies that make the GaAs-based cells at the heart of the CPV systems, like Emcore, Spectrolab, and their newer competitors, come in.

“The real key concern is having enough successful companies to build an industry,” Hartsoch said. “Having one or two suppliers who are just dynamite, that's not as good for the industry as having five or ten.”

“We work closely with a lot of the startup compound semiconductor guys because we want to help them be successful if they ve got advanced technology ideas.”

“The challenges are keeping the efficiencies going up, and they've got to be able to drive their costs down as we strive to use volume to approach grid parity.”

“One of the benefits of this technology is that we're nowhere near the theoretical efficiency CPV systems can achieve, compared to thin film or silicon PV that are approaching the limit.”

“There s a lot of headroom for this technology but the cell guys have to work hard on achieving that, as do the system manufacturers.”

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