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Concentrated PV Market Set To Soar?

As concentrated photovoltaic players Amonix and GreenVolts run into trouble, analysts predict a bright future for the solar technology. Compound Semiconductor talks to IMS Research to find out why.



Amonix's concentrated PV plant still powers the River Fountains Water Facility in Nevada, US, but will the supplier make a come-back with a new generation of systems?



Only two months after market leader, Amonix, closed its manufacturing facility in Nevada, concentrated photovoltaic start-up, GreenVolts, called an end to most operations after key financial backer, ABB, pulled the plug on investment.


News report after news report predicted doom for the CPV market until late September, when UK-based IMS Research forecast sharp growth for the compound semiconductor-based technology.


Predicting the CPV market to double in 2012, company analyst, Jemma Davies stated: “[Installations] will grow rapidly over the next five years to reach almost 1.2 GW by 2016."


At a time when key industry players are clearly struggling, why would an analyst firm paint such a rosy picture? According to Davies; “it's all based on perception".


Concentrated photovoltaic technology uses lenses or curved mirrors to concentrate the sun's energy by a factor of several hundred onto photovoltaic cells, fabricated from compound semiconductors, rather than silicon. Thanks to the massive magnification factor, plus a conversion efficiency of around 40 percent, compared to less than 20 percent for typical cells manufactured from crystalline silicon or thin film material, the price per Watt of the actual cell is by far the lowest compared to rival technologies. .


However, factor in technology complexities at the module level, and these cost advantages fade fast. Recent figures from the US Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration (EIA) state the average price of CPV module was $1.32/W in 2011, relative to $1.63/W for crystalline silicon and $1.28/W for thin-film systems.


But as Davies explains, CPV comes into its own when you look at the levelised cost of electricity. This figure represents the system cost or per-kWh cost of building and operating a module across its lifetime.


“Put this technology in one of its target markets and it will can generate a much higher amount of electricity over its lifetime than rival [photovoltaic] technologies," she says. “This means the kilowatt hour cost comes down and the technology will become much more competitive over the next five years."


And as Davies is keen to point out, industry is beginning to realise this. US and central America are the largest markets for CPV technology; the majority of suppliers are based here and are already competing successfully against manufacturers of other photovoltaic technologies.


Crucially, these regions receive a lot of solar radiation. “In south-west US where the direct normal irradiance is higher, CPV becomes a viable option when you consider the levelised cost of electricity," says Davies.


And it's not just this region of the world. Davies expects strong growth to come from Mexico as US-based CPV system developer, SolFocus, readies to provide thousands of systems to a 450 MW project planned in Baja California.


Meanwhile, Soitec and Schneider Electric are busy installing pilot projects in Morocco, totalling 10 MW, as the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy lays out plans for 2 GW of solar power by 2020. And more than 100 MW of solar power is planned in the north of Chile to power remote mines. Davies reckons CPV will be favoured here as the technology will tolerate the region's dramatic temperature fluctuations more than PV.


“Saudi Arabia has a 16 GW target, with projects at least 1 MW in size," she adds. “This is ideal for CPV, as the technology benefits from being deployed on a large scale, and the companies with the lowest levelised cost of electricity will win."


Clearly myriad projects are taking off, but can we ignore the fact that key industry players, Amonix and GreenVolts, are grounded? Davies highlights Amonix may have closed operations, but it hasn't disappeared completely. “The company was always planning to come back online with a new generation of systems and there have been no announcements to contradict this," she says.


Meanwhile, she believes ABB withdrew GreenVolts' funds following uncertainty in the overall PV market, not a reluctance to invest specifically in CPV.


“It's perception is one of the major barriers for CPV suppliers, and these announcements overshadow success stories from suppliers such as Soitec, SolFocus and SunPower," she says. “Investors see this technology as an underdeveloped hot-bed of technology. These misplaced perceptions have a negative impact on the bankability of CPV suppliers."



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