Europe's Thin-Film PV Industry Anticipates Strong Growth

By Sean Milmo, Ink World European Editor | 05.07.09

For the region's fledgling printed PV segment, 2009 could be the year in which its development and commercialization accelerates.

The rapid growth in Europe’s market for photovoltaic (PV) installations could grind to a halt this year or even go into a decline because of the impact of the recession.

However, for the region’s fledgling printed PV segment, 2009 could be a year in which its development and commercialization accelerates.

“Historically, recessions have been times for changes and renewals,” said Peter Harrop, chairman of IDTechEx, a market research consultancy in printed electronics at Cambridge, England. “It is a big opportunity for making advances in new technologies like printed PV and for the expansion of companies commercializing them. Printed PV will be a massive market because it will provide energy everywhere rather than being distributed through power stations.”

The vast majority of PV modules being installed are made from crystalline silicon (c-Si). They are placed on rigid substrates, usually glass.

Global sales of non-silicon PV, mainly in the form of thin-film inorganic devices made from copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS), cadmium telluride (CdTe) and dye sensitized solar cells (DSSC), is expected by IDTechEx to surge from less than $500 million this year to $20 billion in 2014.

By then, thin film PV will also be making extensive use of polymer-based organic materials, while a large proportion of it will also be printed because printing offers the fastest, least expensive and highest volume manufacturing process.

“We expect that within 10 years, at least 50 percent of the PV sector will be using printing processes,” said Mr. Harrop.

Europe is currently a major driving force in advances in technologies for printed PV because of the relatively large amounts of public sector money available for R&D in solar energy as well as subsidized feed-in tariffs for linking installed PV modules to electricity grids.

“There’s money available for PV projects, although it may take longer than usual to get it,” explained Dr. Klaus Hecker, managing director of the Organic Electronics Association (OE-A), Frankfurt, Germany. “In an area like printed organic photovoltaics, the recession is opening up opportunities because people are looking for new solutions. We are seeing companies putting in production equipment for PV devices in preparation for the economic upturn.”

Among the most active printed PV sectors is that for DSSC, which among thin-film technologies tends to have a broad range of applications.

“Our sales are progressing quite nicely at the moment,” said Keith Brooks, general manager at Greatcell Solar SA, Lutry, Switzerland, a subsidiary of Dyesol Ltd. of Australia, a leading supplier of DSSC materials and components.

“Development work by our customers in Europe is accelerating at the moment with more companies and research organizations moving into the technology,” he added. “The recession is making people more amenable to change.”

The OE-A, Europe’s main trade association for printed electronics (PE), envisions that the first commercial applications for PE will be in consumer products, such as battery rechargers in electronic appliances. In the medium term, the technology will be extended into building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) by becoming an embedded source of energy in houses and commercial buildings.

From 2015, according to the OE-A, printed organic PV panels on roof tops, facades and elsewhere in residential buildings will be connected to electricity grids so that they can profit from government-supported feed-in tariffs. At the moment in Europe, feed-in money tends to be earned only by silicon PV devices. The OE-A predicts that by the middle of the next decade, organic electronic materials will have conductivity levels equal or better than that of amorphous silicon and comparable with those of polysilicon.

Around that time, PV costs will have reached grid parity or will be equal to the costs of conventional generation processes. This parity should be a massive impetus to further growth in PV’s share of the energy market.

Late last year, the European PV Industry Association (EPIA) quadrupled an earlier target of a 2 to 3 percent market share of European electricity sales to 12 percent by 2020.

This optimism appeared to contradict a recent official report commissioned by the German government, which estimated that by 2020, solar energy would make up only 2 to 3 percent of the country’s electricity. Germany has by far the largest amount of installed PV capacity in Europe because of its generous renewable energy subsidies.

Until recently, Germany was accounting for more than half the newly installed capacity annually in the world. But its position as the leading global PV market has been surpassed by Spain, which last year installed 2,511 megawatts (MW). This capacity was two-thirds more than that installed in Germany and more than seven times more than in the U.S. during the year, according to EPIA figures.

One reason for an expected big slump in the growth of PV installations in Europe is that the Spanish government has put a 500 MW cap on new capacity. But in other European countries, PV capacity is expanding strongly due to government incentives. Italy is expected to double its PV installations this year to 500 MW.

EPIA is hoping that prospects of continued robust growth in PV in Europe will help to bolster the faith of investors in the sector, particularly since it is expected that as the sector become bigger, the more it will be able to reduce its costs.

“Through this commitment (to a target share of 12 percent) and under the right framework conditions, we are able to reduce PV generation costs by 8 percent every year,” said Winfried Hoffman, EPIA president. “This represents a decrease of 50 percent every eight years – a sexy promise to investors.”

Thin film PV is already able to offer a better return on investment than silicon. “With DSSC, the average pay-back time can be much shorter – between 18 months and two years, whereas with silicon modules, it can be double or triple that,” said Mr. Brooks.

But costs of crystalline silicon PV products have been tumbling this year – decreasing by around 20 percent in the first quarter alone in Europe. This has been mainly because of overcapacity in supplies of polysilicon, which could drive down prices of the material from a peak of around $400 per kilo in 2008 to as low as $50 per kg in 2012, according to some forecasters. This sharp drop will put pressure on producers of non-silicon PV devices to reduce their costs.

Currently, printed PV has little direct competition with silicon because most of its first commercialized products are in the consumer market, where it is bringing PV into new segments.

G24 Innovations (G24i), Cardiff, Wales, which has become a pace setter in DSSC technologies for consumer products, has expanded a pilot line into a production facility with 20 MW of reel-to-reel (R2R) capacity. It claims to be the first commercial manufacturer of a new generation of dye sensitized thin film cells which can operate in low light and indoor environments.

The startup company is initially concentrating on PV replacements for conventional batteries through applications like powering mobile electronic devices and LED lighting systems.

“Our technology allows the renewable energy revolution to start from the bottom up and not the top down,” said Edward Stevenson, the co-founder of G24i.

Over the next five to six years, BIPV is regarded in Europe as offering one of the biggest potential markets for DSSC and other thin film devices, most of which will be relying on printing processes. NanoMarkets, a market research organization in Glen Allen, VA, is forecasting that global BIPV sales will soar from $528 million in 2008 to $8.2 billion in 2015.

In BIPV systems, PV components are incorporated into building materials, so they can act as alternatives to the installation of solar energy panels.

Thin film photovoltaic are likely to prove more cost-efficient and energy efficient than crystalline silicon modules in the BIPV sector. NanoMarkets is predicting that within six years, thin film PV will account for the majority of the market, whereas at present 80 percent is based on c-Si technologies.

DSSC is particularly suitable for building-integrated photovoltaics because of its ability to capture a wide spectrum of sunlight while also being relatively cheap. Dye sensitized cells can operate in shade and even in artificial light indoors, which is not possible with c-Si systems and some other thin-film technologies.

A joint development project between Dyesol and the Anglo-Dutch steelmaker Corus to incorporate dye-sensitized cells into strip steel for construction applications has been exceeding its performance schedule. Its first BIPV products are now scheduled to be supplied next year to customers for testing. Dyesol’s technology uses a screenprinting process for the manufacture of the cells.

BIPV systems in Europe are being embedded in materials for roofs and facades of buildings. There is also R&D work in Europe in their incorporation into windows and frames.

In Germany, a government-funded research consortium headed by the country’s Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering and including Proell KG, a screenprinting inks producer, is developing dye solar cells for glass facades, sky and roof lighting and for window glazing.

The prospect of combining PV components with glass and a range of other materials is arousing the interest of European automobile manufacturers. Professor Pietro Perlo, director of the technology division at Fiat’s research center in Italy, told an IDTechEx conference last month in Dresden, Germany, that it had been operating a test vehicle with thin film PV panels.

A small car could travel nearly 8,200 kilometers a year solely on solar power in a sunny climate such as that of southern Europe, said Perlo.

“It is an illustration of the positive outlook for PV, particularly for thin-film photovoltaics,” said Mr. Harrop. “Even a sector being badly affected by the recession like the car industry, whose sales in Europe have been plummeting by 30 percent, is looking to the future opportunities being offered by solar energy.”