A Brighter Future
This has been a year of upheaval for the solar power industry. It was the year when solar panels began fast approaching grid parity, when the cost of implementing solar energy began to reach that of other generation methods. Until 2012, solar power was relatively expensive due to the high costs of photovoltaic panels, making solar prohibitive in all but a few applications without government incentives or subsidies.
But photovoltaic prices have collapsed since 2008 at an increasing rate; one industry estimate puts the drop at more than 80 per cent with half of that drop coming in the last year alone. Another has it that the average capital cost of a new solar array has dropped 30 per cent in the last two years. Many solar companies anticipate further reductions in the cost of their equipment and facilities.
So is now the time to go out and buy up panels? After all, they are all the same – they all come out of China, where over-production stoked by government subsidies to manufacturers has reached crisis proportions – so now they should cost next to nothing, shouldn’t they?
Well, not exactly. Not if you listen to George Phani. He is National Sales and Operations Manager for the Australian arm of Kyocera Solar, one of the world’s largest vertically-integrated producers and suppliers of solar energy panels. He has some 15 years of experience in this industry while Kyocera has more than 35 years of production of solar panels and it is his considered opinion that while technology has improved and prices have become more competitive, there is a crying need for education at customer level – in all fields including commercial, residential and power generation. During this century, the number of companies offering solar energy products has increased by 51 per cent per year; few of them manufacture their own and even fewer have complete control over every step of the manufacturing process like Kyocera.
In other words, anyone considering the benefits of solar – to oneself, one’s bank balance and the environment – needs to understand that:
1. Many buyers don’t know what to look for.
There are a number of different solar power capture technologies. George believes there is a balance to be struck between the ultimate in efficiency, measured at Standard test conditions (STC) being peak sun at 25oC and product durability. Many efficiency tests on solar arrays centre on the energy capture without taking account of the yield of that energy over the lifetime of the product; this can give a false impression of the overall efficiency of the product. Reliability can be an issue and it is Kyocera’s view that at the present time the best overall balance is achieved by controlling the quality of the semiconductor material and design of the photovoltaic cell, although it carries out research and keeps much more than just a watching brief over alternatives that may become more viable in the next decade or two. With this conventional design, Kyocera has broken the multi-crystalline silicon solar cell efficiency world record several times; the product it offers in Australia, one of the world’s most demanding climates, is the same as it sells worldwide – there is only one standard and Kyocera installs it for corporate and industrial buyers as well as householders.
2. Many suppliers (including installers) are not adequately trained to help commercial or residential customers get the best from solar power and installations.
As with any industry that is young and growing rapidly, information and knowledge are at a premium. Some installers are doing little more than importing a container-load of the aforementioned cheap PV products from China and selling them with a warranty that they may not be able to honour if the product goes wrong in five or ten years time because they or the manufacturer may not be there to contact. George does recommend buying a brand you have heard of and given the fact that Kyocera is a Fortune top-500 company that has been around for 50-odd years, it is certainly one that will be around in the future.
3. Claims being made for the performance of panels are often exaggerated or at least cannot be backed up by proof.
There is, says George, an inherent limitation in the testing regime for performance of solar panels. In the standard IEC test that is recognised worldwide, panels must pass muster in a number of criteria. The problem, he says, is that manufacturers are allowed to submit a different panel to each test, so that one panel is not subjected to all of the performance criteria. Consequently it is nearly impossible to establish whether a given panel is able to perform at its rated output for the full length of its service life or even what that service life is.
Many panels therefore pass the IEC 61215 “Crystalline silicon terrestrial photovoltaic (PV) modules – Design qualification and type approval” and IEC 61730 ”Photovoltaic (PV) module safety qualification” tests. But a tougher, more comprehensive test is available now and Kyocera has become the first to pass it. Its modules have been certificated by the independent test laboratory TüV Rheinland, Japan, to the “Long Term Sequential Testing” programme which dictates that a single panel must undergo all aspects of the testing. This extends the performance testing of IEC 61215 and Kyocera is the first module manufacturer to pass the rigorous testing regime, which takes approximately one year to complete.
George is keen to stress that Kyocera is one of a quite small number of companies in this field with the experience to be able to know that its products actually do last up to 35 years in real-world installations. “We have many such products still out there and still working, so we know they last longer.” Long-term durability is critical – it’s a disaster if, having made the decision to go solar on good ethical and investment grounds, you were to choose installations that need replacing after five or even 15 years, because the case for ethical and economic advantage is made on long-term calculations.
4. Solar arrays can be integrated in an unobtrusive and efficient manner
Kyocera is a partner with Ergon Energy in the Solar Cities project that has been working with all levels of government, industry and the community to change the way we all think about and use energy. In October, Mark Dreyfus, federal parliamentary secretary for climate change and energy efficiency, opened the Townsville RSL Stadium solar array, part of the project which consists of 348 kW of solar modules on the roof of the stadium in the the north Queensland town. The photovoltaic installation, which will produce approximately 500 MWh of energy per year, is now the largest in the region and will supply the equivalent of two-thirds of the stadium’s energy requirements. Kyocera has not limited its reach and application to building structures, having now partnered with companies like Toyota who are integrating Kyocera solar modules on the roof of the PRIUS.
5. The future is bright.
Rising prices of conventional fossil-fuel energies help provide validation of the return on investment for solar installations. Usually the case can be made just by taking account of the rebate for surplus electricity produced in the home or factory but not needed at time of generation so fed into the grid. But the equation is changing, for once, in favour of the customer. With the spread of solar has come an accelerating concentration of research into storage of that energy produced. In a typical domestic installation, the householder may well be away during the day when most of the electricity is generated, while needing the most power just as the sun goes down. At present, storage batteries are taking care of an increasing number of installations and reducing the amount of electricity consumed from the grid – and the bills. They work well enough within their limitations and the technology (shared with the mobile phone industry which has a similar need for better storage efficiency) is being refined to make batteries lighter, smaller yet capable of holding more charge for longer. However, efforts are being made to increase the effectiveness of thermal storage and on the horizon are further exciting technologies such as liquid air (see Resource in Focus Nov 12, p 24) which has extraordinary promise. Whatever the medium, storage of energy produced by solar panels is going to get better and bring the enticing prospect for many – and Australians most of all – of disconnecting from the grid entirely and becoming energy self-sufficient.
Kyocera’s advantage is its big corporate background and commensurate cross-divisional research muscle. Because it not only makes the panels but is actively engaged on the associated systems and processes, the company may well be in a position to help you – corporately or residentially – attain your ‘day in the sun’.