Is Bad News Better than No News?

NewsMany times the articles on PV in the mainstream press are terrible. One would like to be kind and say that the non-expert authors are doing the best they can. Unfortunately, there’s a common theme in most of the mistakes they make – sensationalism. So deniability of responsibility is not so “plausible.”

I guess it’s no surprise. The media, which is all about “image,” uses sensationalism when it can. Sadly, this perverts their role as a source of believable information. They become advertisers, if only for themselves.

As an example of a really terrible article, let’s take “Thin Film Solar Panels Take A Giant Leap Toward Affordable Renewable Energy,” by Nate Lew of coolerplanet. Unfortunately, I found this article highlighted on Google News and also picked up by a SEIA newsletter and the NCPV Hotline. So these articles do get shared by others, who (like Moody’s did for bad debt) give them a patina of reputability.

Let’s see where coolerplanet goes wrong. First of all, the headline about a “giant leap” is bogus. We’ll see how bogus, later.

The first line alerts knowledgeable solar PV people to the misunderstanding of the author that “thin films” are flexible PV modules on foil or plastic. And that this article is about flexible thin films, which it is not. Abound Solar makes thin film semiconductor on glass (as does GE’s PrimeStar, mentioned later), not on a flexible substrate. They are as bulky or bulkier than standard PV modules. There are so many mistakes here, it is actually hard to untangle them!

1. The name “thin films” in PV refers to the semiconductor (which actually converts the light to electricity), not the substrate (like a foil or glass) it is made on. The semiconductors are THIN – about a few microns, less than a hair! Got that?

2. Even flexible thin films on foils tend to end up between 2 sheets of glass to mount them and to protect them – and this doesn’t matter!

3. “Bulky” is not a problem, or a minor one (shipping costs, carrying to a roof, breakage). No one has ever figured out how to use bare, flexible thin films without making them rigid except for very minor, niche markets (e.g., UniSolar roof shingles). By far the greatest number of PV modules are used in rigid form and will be for the foreseeable future. This is not a disadvantage.

We haven’t even gotten out of the first paragraph yet!electronics revolution

Now we have the comparison to the conventional sort of PV, here called “silicone.” Now in my mind, silicone is a sticky plastic goo that comes from a can. Silicon (no “e”), the real thing, is a semiconductor used in solar and computer chips, and just about anything else that is part of the electronics revolution of the last 60 years. Do people imagine that sticky go makes sunlight into electricity or runs their computers? OK, I shouldn’t be nasty – people just don’t know! But for goodness sake, why write about something so superficially?

Now comes the doozie, the comment that made me write this note. The article says, “Abound Solar, a Colorado based company, has claimed they can produce thin-film photovoltaics at $1 per watt. That makes it cost-competitive with fossil fuels. By comparison, crystalline silicone panels cost roughly $4 per watt to make.”

Well, this is a tragedy of incomprehension. Yes, Abound probably will someday be able to make CdTe thin film PV on glass at under a dollar a watt. This is good news! Why do I know they probably will do this? Because the largest PV company in the world, First Solar, already does do it! They make modules that cost 84 c/W right now, a thousand megawatts of them (about 10 square kilometers)! Holy cow! In fact, Abound is really just trying to catch up to them, and if they do, that will be a great achievement. It is always good to catch up to the best – if it can be done.

Meanwhile, the rest of the same two sentences highlighted above are in the realm of fantasy (too). They say this will make PV as cheap as coal??? Well, then PV must be as cheap as coal right now, because First Solar is already doing what the article states. Hmm. Well, I am of two opinions about this. Using traditional NPV economics, the best PV is about twice as expensive as coal. Evaluated over a century of plant life (actually pretty typical for power plants), PV is cheaper. But not because Abound suddenly made $1/W modules, or…eventually does so (since they haven’t, a detail easily overlooked).

As an aside, would the author be happy to know PV is so far along? Or would he just be disappointed that his sensationalist article was misguided? This is part of the problem – the press is only interested in something new. It cannot say, “oh, I am sorry, I missed this – last year, PV became cost-effective with coal. Sorry we didn’t notice.”

The rest of the article is relatively factual and quotes good sources, even if the Repins interview is out of context in an article about thin films on glass (not flexible CIS).

Ken Zweibel


April 8, 2010 8:57 pm

Well, I for one think that I can do without any more bad Solar (photovoltaic) news for quite some time. First GE Solar closed up shop in Newark, DE (but sort of reopened) late in 2009. A couple of weeks ago, BP Solar announced that they were shutting down PV manufacturing in Frederick, MD and laying off a couple hundred people. Around the same time, Applied Materials announced that they were relocating some of their Solar group to China and this week Applied Materials indicated that their a-Si equipment product line – SunFab is on thin ice. Also, this week it looks like Signet Solar is cancelling plans to build a thin film solar manufacturing plant in New Mexico and not too many days ago, auditors raised questions regarding the viability of CIGS producer Solyndra. At least Suniva seems to be doing well from press reports, along with First Solar and SunPower. But are any of the other USA Solar Cell manufacturers making money – or are off-shore PV manufacturers killing off the domestic (USA) PV industry? Granted, the PV players that are doing poorly seem to be the ones with more oddball technology that might be considered by the experts as never having had a chance. But is there a downside of scaring off future venture capitialists from more viable green technologies? For example, what’s wrong with just making high efficiency multicrystalline silicon solar cells using highly automated equipment (i.e., low labor costs) in the USA? Isn’t that what the Chinese are doing successfully?

April 9, 2010 9:30 am

You also mentioned scaring off venture capital, or investment. Investment is scared off, because the market is tough. But if you look at the history of especially VC investment in PV, it has been terrible. Can you name any successes except First Solar? Which was really a strategic partnership with John Walton. Now investors are being more practical, and seeing start-ups as potential members of the elite, not leap frogging the elite – so there are some start-ups that may become important (Suniva, Abound, and the like).

April 9, 2010 10:23 pm

One thought is that it may depend on how cynical we are regarding the motives many of the recent alternative energy VC investors – as opposed to Walton who stuck it out with First Solar for many years. Were many of these newer VC’s simply interested in the short term (i.e, flip the stock) and ended up being unwilling to invest for the many years that it would take to bring these immature PV technologies to market? Could it be that once it looked like PV stopped being a get rich quick scheme – the VC’s lost interest. I don’t know. I hate to say it, but some of the VC investments in PV could have had more to do with might make the most money in a very short time – as in pump up the value of the company – as opposed to actually developing a sellable (viable) product. More hype than the tough long term job of actually building a company and developing a difficult technology.
As for successes, I guess if any VC’s were able to make a lot of money off of their PV investments – they would consider them successes. Maybe some did. Certainly, the investment banks that brokered the deals likely made out.
To answer your question, was there anyone else that ‘made it’. What about SunPower? Granted, they seemed to really take off after the Cypress acquisition. Obviously, there’s some of the much older big players – Solarex (BP) and AstroPower (GE) – now gone -that did well for quite a few years, but I don’t know how they got their start financially. Was it VC-type funding or plain old bank loans? Although, what about the big offshore PV players, Suntech and Q-Cells? Did they get their financial jump start from public (Government) or private funding?

April 10, 2010 10:44 am

What you say all sounds pretty sensible to me.
I was thinking about the wave of VC money that started in about 2003, maybe a little after. It was all hype-driven, high risk, post dot-com era. The VCs had the impression PV would be like dot-com, and that was wrong and ignorant.
Why we are losing our manufacturing jobs is an important question that transcends our conversation. I am surprised it is not viewed as a major political issue.

April 9, 2010 9:23 am

Many of the negatives you mention are the result of the intense competition right now. The leaders are still making money, but even their margins are visibly shrinking. But because prices are coming down so low, it is a huge plus. New markets and greater market enthusiasm are tangible.
I am personally puzzled by the issue of US manufacturing. Clearly, off-shore manufacturing is cheaper. But why? It isn’t mostly labor, because many of these new factories are highly automated. It must be a concatenation of many small things, and perhaps some big ones – lower taxes and higher incentives. I know each plant gets some local favor.
All in all, we are losing many battles, but I think we are winning the war.

April 9, 2010 10:55 pm
I am personally puzzled by the issue of US manufacturing. Clearly, off-shore manufacturing is cheaper. But why? It isn’t mostly labor, because many of these new factories are highly automated

Agree, and not only are these plants highly automated, they are also very capital intensive and labor is a surprising small percentage of cost. 20% is likely not an unreasonable number for an approximate percentage of the total (for labor). You can easily find studies that USA workers are more productive than Chinese workers, so even if you pay the Chinese a very low wage, it seems tough to blame high labor costs in the USA for our competitive disadvantage. Something else seems to be going on – but nobody is talking. If you read some of Paul Krugman’s recent articles on exchange rates – USA vs. China – and if I remember correctly – Krugman believes that China is devaluing their currency by up to 40%, which seems like a huge advantage. Granted, China is forcing it’s citizens to a much lower standard of living – essentially half pay – in exchange for reducing the cost of it’s exports. Also, I’ve read that the Chinese are aggressively promoting the development of an alternative energy industry – especially PV (and wind). So, I’m assuming that this means plenty of ‘incentives’ that aren’t publicized. These incentives likely take a variety of forms (that we just don’t know about – but can speculate). For example, is the relocation of Applied Materials Solar (PV) group to China related to one of those incentives? Obviously, we don’t know, but almost all of AMAT”s new solar jobs are now going off-shore. Are incentives providing cheaper land or capital equipment – or long term tax breaks? Or are we off base and this has more to do with regulation or the lack there of? I don’t know.