Can the US manufacture enough solar panels to meet its surging demand?
Probably not anytime soon, despite new federal incentives, the threat of tariffs against overseas competitors, and a huge ongoing buildout of manufacturing capacity.
A solar-panel assembly line at Qcells’ manufacturing facility in Georgia (Barbara Lantz/Canary Media)
Flush with a fresh injection of generous federal incentives, the U.S. solar industry is betting billions on scaling up homegrown manufacturing and reversing its reliance on foreign suppliers.
Solar is the fastest-growing form of electricity generation in the U.S., but that pace of growth has only been possible with the help of tens of millions of imported solar panels. Most of these panels are manufactured (at least partially) in China, a country the U.S. is increasingly at odds with and which Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike want to reduce dependence on — especially when it comes to the rapidly unfolding energy transition.
A robust and vertically integrated domestic solar industry would allow the U.S. to have reliable suppliers “ that we can count on, where your supply isn’t going to be disrupted every two to three years in a major way,” said Justin Baca, VP of markets and research at the Solar Energy Industries Association. Today’s solar industry is intermittently immobilized by tariff-driven trade squabbles, Baca said, like last year’s back-and-forth over potential punitive tariffs affecting the Southeast Asian nations from which the U.S. sources most of its solar panels.
In a dramatic policy turn last year, the Biden administration put a two-year pause on imposing any new import tariffs on solar products, which would have stopped U.S. solar deployment in its tracks. Months later, the administration also provided the carrot of the Inflation Reduction Act’s billions in incentives for domestically manufactured solar hardware.
But there’s still a bipartisan appetite in Congress to impose tariffs on solar panels from Southeast Asia as soon as next year — a move that only makes sense for the energy transition if the U.S. is able to meet all of its own solar manufacturing needs by then.
So can homegrown solar production, turbocharged by the Inflation Reduction Act, supplant that imported hardware anytime soon?
The solar supply gap
Here’s the problem: Right now, the U.S. cannot manufacture anything close to enough solar to meet its own installation needs.
In 2022. the U.S. produced a paltry 5 gigawatts of solar panels or modules, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, while importing 29 gigawatts of modules from China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.
And with the pace of solar installations projected to surge, the challenge of scaling manufacturing to match that demand isn’t going to get any easier.
While 17 gigawatts of total solar capacity was installed in the U.S. last year, according to the Department of Energy, a whopping 358 gigawatts of new solar capacity is expected to be deployed between 2023 and 2030. driven by the incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act, according to the latest New Energy Outlook from BloombergNEF. Annual installations could balloon to more than 100 gigawatts per year by 2030. according to some projections.
Some help is on the way, thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act. Since the landmark law was enacted last August, 27 new solar manufacturing facilities have been announced in the U.S. But in the best-case scenario, these announcements still won’t close the gap between projected supply and demand for solar panels in the coming years — and the best-case scenario is rarely the one that unfolds.
Challenging Chinese solar dominance
Although America’s IRA-inspired solar manufacturing plans are ambitious, they’re absolutely put to shame by the scale of China’s solar manufacturing.
The U.S. was the first to commercialize solar panels, but over the last two decades, its solar-production expertise migrated to Japan, then Germany and ultimately to China, despite protectionist tariffs imposed during the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations. (This is a good case for the ineffectiveness of trade tariffs.)
Now, China is the dominant global solar supplier by far, and home to 70 to 98 percent of the world’s production capacity for the silicon-based materials and components in PV panels, according to S P Global. Meanwhile, the U.S. currently has just over 2 percent of the world’s photovoltaic module production capacity — 11 gigawatts out of a global total of more than 500 gigawatts in 2023. according to energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie.
And while the heftiest solar-manufacturing additions in the U.S. are coming in 3.gigawatt chunks, new facilities in China are orders of magnitude larger, with numerous 20. and 30.gigawatt factories in the works from vendors such as Longi, Jinko and Trina.
The country’s dominance poses a significant problem for the U.S. energy transition as politicians on both sides of the aisle step up anti-China rhetoric, both in general and specifically about the solar supply chain.
Get Caught Up
Chart: How does the US race to onshore clean energy stack up globally?
Beyond the looming domestic-content issue, some of the new post-IRA facility announcements aren’t exactly guaranteed to pan out. Several factories in the works, like CubicPV’s plan for 10 gigawatts of capacity, are banking on unproven technologies such as hybrid silicon and perovskite photovoltaic materials that come with their own set of reliability and execution risks.
Still, a number of established solar players including Qcells, First Solar and Enel have already selected sites and in some cases broken ground for promising new factories or expansions of existing manufacturing facilities. Qcells predicts that its total production in Georgia will hit 8 gigawatts in 2024 across all the links of the supply chain — from polysilicon to wafers, cells and modules. By 2025. First Solar says it will be making 10 gigawatts of vertically integrated solar panels a year.
These facilities represent real progress toward the vision of a bustling U.S. solar manufacturing sector, but even all of these efforts combined are not enough for the U.S. to reach solar self-sufficiency anytime soon. Certainly not by 2024. which would be necessary to offset the burden imposed if new tariffs are enacted next year, and likely not even by the end of this decade — even SEIA’s optimistic estimates have the U.S. importing 20 gigawatts of panels in 2030.
Sooner rather than later, the U.S. is going to be forced to choose between two options: accept imported panels for the next few years as the cost of a Rapid transition away from fossil fuels — or accept a delayed energy transition as the cost of protecting U.S. industry.
Headquartered in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho with clients on every continent, KORE Power provides functional solutions to meet the growing demand for green economic expansion and a decarbonized future. As a fully integrated provider of battery cells and clean energy technology and solutions, KORE drives the energy transition through direct access to superior tech, clean energy manufacturing, and unmatched support for clean energy jobs and resilient, sustainable communities worldwide. KORE Power’s robust portfolio provides the commercial, industrial, utility and defense markets with next-generation battery cells, advanced energy storage systems that scale to grid, intuitive asset management, and EV power and charging infrastructure support.
Eric Wesoff is the editorial director at Canary Media.
Current and upcoming innovations in solar cell technologies
Second-generation thin-film solar cells are appearing as one of the most promising PV technologies due their narrow design ( 350 times smaller light-absorbing layers compared to standard Si-panels), light weight, flexibility, and ease of installation. Typically, four types of materials are used in their construction: cadmium-telluride (CdTe), amorphous silicon, copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS), and gallium-arsenide (GaAs). While CdTe has a toxicity concern due to the cadmium, the CIGS solar cells are turning out to be the more promising high-efficiency and economic options for both residential and commercial installations, with efficiency up to 21%.
Ascent Solar is one of the top players in the manufacturing of high-performance CIGS modules, with their superlight and extreme CIGS technology being used in space, aerospace, government, and public sectors.
Perovskite Solar Cells
Among the next-generation solar cells, hybrid metal halide perovskite solar cells (PSCs) have garnered a great amount of attention due to their low price, thinner design, low-temperature processing, and excellent light absorption properties (good performance under low and diffuse light). PSCs can be flexible, lightweight, and semitransparent. Notably, perovskite thin films can also be printed, leading to scalable high-throughput manufacturing. and a recent roll-to-roll printed PSC has reached 12.2% efficiency. the highest among printed PSCs.
Notably, combined perovskite and Si-PV materials have shown a record efficiency of up to 28% under laboratory conditions, as demonstrated by Oxford PV. While stability and durability have remained a major concern, a recent low-cost polymer-glass stack encapsulation system has enabled PSCs to withstand standard operating conditions. Although PSCs are still not commercialized, they hold significant economic and efficiency advantages to drive the future of the solar energy market.
What are the breakthrough integrative solar cells technologies?
Apart from innovative materials, creative methods of harvesting maximum solar energy are also emerging. For example, Swiss start-up Insolight is using integrated lenses as optical boosters in the panels’ protective glass to concentrate light beams by 200 times while reaching an efficiency of 30%.
Another recent development is the designing of prototypes of thermoradiative PV devices, or reverse solar panels. that can generate electricity at night by utilizing the heat irradiated from the panels to the optically coupled deep space, which serves as a heat sink.
Interestingly, along with innovative materials, integrative applications other than standard rooftop installations are also rising and are currently in their infancy. For instance, solar distillation can harvest solar energy while utilizing the dissipated heat from panels to purify water, if there is an integrated membrane distillation attachment.
Another transformative technology of the future could be solar paints. which include solar paint hydrogen (generates energy from photovoltaic water splitting), quantum dots (photovoltaic paint), and perovskite-based paints.
Furthermore, transparent solar Windows are highly innovative applications, and Ubiquitous Energy has achieved a solar-to-electricity conversion efficiency of 10% with their transparent materials. A demonstration from Michigan State University, a pioneer in this technology, can be seen in this video:
With the Rapid development of low-cost, high-performance semiconducting materials, space-saving thin films, and easily installable technologies, the solar energy market is expected to boom in the next five years. Despite the setback caused by the pandemic, the anticipated cost reduction of 15% to 35% by 2024 for solar installations is encouraging and could make this renewable energy more affordable.
About the author
Tufan is a synthetic chemist at heart with 10 years of research experience in the field of organic and organometallic chemistry. He has specialized in chemical catalysis and method development for organic reactions. While he has a passion for developing greener and sustainable processes for pharmaceutical synthesis, he enjoys learning and writing about innovative technologies. Tufan’s future interest lies in the areas of pharmaceuticals, sustainability, and renewable energy storage. He enjoys communicating science through teaching, guidance, and writing.
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MIT researchers have developed an ultrathin solar cell that is eighteen times lighter per watt generated compared to conventional silicon photovoltaic solar panels.
MIT Solar Cell Research: The researchers used nanomaterials in printable electronic inks to create this novel solar cell device. (Image credit: Melanie Gonick, MIT)
Researchers at MIT have developed an ultra-thin and ultra-light solar cell that can be used to turn almost any surface into a solar power source. The flexible solar cells are much thinner than human hair and are glued to a lightweight fabric to make it easier to install them on any fixed surface.
“The present version of our new lightweight photovoltaic (PV) cells is not as efficient in power conversion as silicon PVs, but they weigh much less. In the short run, they would not be used to replace conventional silicon PV installations, but to provide power where silicon PVs cannot be easily installed,” said Vladimir Bulović, lead author of the article on the research published in the journal Small Methods, to indianexpress.com over email.
“For example, they can be used to deliver solar electricity in places that are hard to reach. Being 18 times lighter than silicon PV modules per Watt generated, our PV modules can be easily delivered and installed in remote villages. As our technology gets improved, we expect it will reach the efficiencies presently generated by silicon PVs. At that point, our flexible PV modules can be considered a replacement for silicon PVs,” added Bulovic.
Making the ultra-thin solar cells
The researchers used nanomaterials in printable electronic inks to create this novel solar cell device. They used a “slot-die coater” to deposit layers of electronic materials onto a substrate that is only 3 microns thick. They then used a screen printing technique to print an electrode and deposit on the substrate to complete the solar cell. At this point, the printed module is about 15 microns in thickness, and researchers can peel off the plastic substrate to get the device. For comparison, human hair is around 70 microns thick on average.
But this ultra-thin freestanding module itself is difficult to work with, as it can easily get torn or damaged in other ways. To counter this problem, the researchers turned to a material known commercially as Dyneema — a special kind of fabric that only uses 13 grams per square meter.
According to MIT, the fibres of the fabric are so strong that they were used as ropes to lift a sunken cruise ship from the bottom of the Mediterranean sea. They adhered the solar device to this material using a UV-curable glue, resulting in an ultra-light and durable structure that can be used for various purposes.
Versatility, durability and future research
Conventional photovoltaic solar cells are fragile, which is why they are encased in heavy glass and metal framing. This puts great limits on where such solar cells can be installed and deployed. This is why there has been renewed interest in developing such versatile ultra-thin solar cells. For example, earlier this year, Dartmouth researchers developed a new flexographic printing process to deposit perovskite solar cells on almost any material.
The MIT researchers tested the durability of the new devices they developed, and found that the cells retained more than 90 per cent of their initial power generation capabilities even after the fabric was rolled and unrolled more than 500 times. However, they would still need to be encased in another material to protect them from the elements.
The researchers told indianexpress.com that additional work would be required to make these cells more robust. “We are developing lightweight packaging technology that would be flexible and mechanically robust, which would enable us to maintain the format of the present PV,” Bulović said.
Once the packaging technology is developed, the researchers envision many uses for the material. For example, it can be installed on the sails of a boat to provide power at sea. It can also be used on tents and tarps used during disaster recovery operations, or even on drones to extend their range.
New solar cells
Renewable energy will play a leading role in the energy industry of the future
An automaker in Korea, alongside US-tech giants Apple, were recently reported to be discussing a collaboration plan to produce electric self-driving vehicles. Apple’s possible business expansion into the electric vehicle (EV) market demonstrates the level of interest that global companies have in the EV boom, triggered by the success of companies like Tesla. According to a market outlook released by Bloomberg, the number of global EV sales, currently around several million units worldwide, will grow significantly to account for at least 30 percent new vehicle sales by 2040. For EVs to become a truly sustainable means of transportation, they have to use electricity generated from renewable energy sources, and therefore, the demand for renewable energies, including PV, is forecast to rise.
The PV industry has been driven by silicon solar cell modules, which account for 95% of the global module market. Silicon solar cells are produced using first-generation technology, ensuring high reliability and maturity with excellent price competitiveness.
Since the barrier for new entrants into the silicon PV cell sector is quite low, Chinese companies are dominating the global market by leveraging their economies of scale. For example, the combined production capacity of three major Chinese PV cell producers’ 183 mm wafers is expected to reach over 50 GW (pv-magazine.com, November 2020). The figure suggests an aggressive investment strategy in China, because global installed PV capacity is around 120 GW per year.
Securing competitiveness is the key to promoting the PV industry in Korea
For the Korean PV industry to secure competitiveness against Chinese PV producers, it must develop so-called ‘super-gap’ technologies. However, this is not a straightforward task because silicon module-related technologies are relatively standardized. Perovskite solar cells, first introduced in 2012, began to receive much more attention in 2020 for achieving over 25% efficiency. Of note, in Korea, scientists continue to set world records for the technology, and this will likely improve the competitiveness of the PV industry in Korea. (Figure 1. Perovskite solar cell efficiency trends)
(KRICT: Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology / UNIST: Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology)
Perovskite is a material that meets almost all the requirements of a solar cell. Because of its high light absorption rate, it absorbs most incident light even with a thickness of less than 1 micrometer. This makes it possible to produce large-area solar cells by applying a thin film of perovskite on to glass or plastic. This cell is called a thin-film solar cell, and it forms the basis of second-generation solar cell technology.
A low temperature process is essential to producing cells using a plastic substrate. With perovskite, high-efficiency solar cells can be produced at low temperatures (150℃). They are typically fabricated using non-vacuum spin coating with a perovskite solution, which is advantageous in that it lowers the cost. Spin coating is used to apply a certain amount of viscous solution to a rotating substrate and distribute it uniformly via centrifugal force. It is common to apply it in post-processing, including heat treatment, after dehydrating the sample.
Using flexible substrates like plastics or stainless steel plates offers advantages in terms of utility and the possibility of reducing manufacturing costs significantly, as it allows manufacturers to apply the roll-to-roll (R2R) method. R2R processing is a technique of producing electronic devices on a roll of flexible material, such as aluminum foil, and that material is fed continuously from one roller to another. The technique is popular because it can reduce the size of the footprint required for cell and module manufacturing.
Second-generation cells: thin-film technology
There also are some thin-film solar cell materials that had been considered for commercialization prior to the development of perovskite. CIGS (CuInGaSe2 with 23.4% efficiency), CdTe (22.1% efficiency), amorphous silicon (a-Si:H with 14.0% efficiency), dye-sensitized cell (13.0% efficiency) are major thin-film solar cell types. (https://www.nrel.gov/pv/cell-efficiency.html). CIGS and CdTe have been commercialized already, but their market share is low. There are several reasons why thin-film solar cells, whose market share reached as much as 30% as of the early 2000s, failed to keep up with the Rapid pace of market growth.
The first reason is efficiency. A solar cell’s efficiency is a factor that determines the price of the entire system, and eventually the price of electricity produced in the system. Previously, price (price per watt) was more important than efficiency, but as solar cell fall, other factors, including the cost of balance of systems (BOS) such as inverters and frames, are becoming more important. Since thin-film solar cells are less efficient than silicon, they are disadvantageous in terms of the overall system installation cost. Secondly, the supply of module mass production equipment was not always so smooth because the technological maturity was lacking, and it was therefore difficult to quickly make large-scale investments.
The manufacturing technology for thin-film solar cells appears to be relatively simple compared to the 8.5th generation TFT LCD panels for TVs or laptops, which are produced in 2.5×2.2m2 sizes with a pixel that is less than a millimeter. Thin-film solar panels are fabricated with connecting long ribbon-shaped cells being scribed in a width of about 5–8 mm in series, which are also connected in series, having opposed front and rear electrode surfaces (Figure 2. Thin-film solar module structure).
A thin-film solar panel, since all its cells are connected in series, is a single device. Therefore, a panel’s entire efficiency can be significantly decreased if there is even a pin hole or tiny defect present. It requires advanced processing control capability to apply 5-6 thin layers uniformly to a large-area substrate using low-cost technologies. The production of this cell type becomes difficult to maintain in the market if the cost of equipment and process increases, as its competitiveness compared to silicon will fall.
In order to commercialize perovskite thin-film solar cells, much research has been conducted actively to improve the thermal and environmental stability of the cells, and address issues with efficiency reduction due to increasing product size. Some promising achievements are being reported. For the commercialization of perovskite solar cells, mass production-related issues should be reviewed seriously. If solar cell theories accumulated since the 1970s are well integrated with technologies and production know-how, perovskite thin-film solar cells can be commercialized sooner than expected.
(Tandem solar cells are fabricated by pairing silicon with perovskite. Some of the incident light is absorbed in the perovskite layer and then light with other wavelengths is absorbed in the bottom silicon solar cell. (Refer to Figure 4.))
Perovskite overcomes the efficiency limit of silicon solar cells
The application of combining perovskite with silicon solar cells to improve efficiency is gaining strength as a fabrication method that increases the possibility of its commercialization. The principle is to produce electricity by absorbing light at different wavelengths by placing perovskite solar cells on top of silicon cells (called tandem cell structure: Figure 3). Perovskite is a compound that consists of three or more elements, and its photo detection bandwidth varies according to the composition ratio of each element. As such, perovskite sensitivity can be adjusted to the bandwidth where silicon cannot respond to efficiently. That is, perovskite absorbs light at shorter wavelengths and silicon absorbs light at longer wavelengths that pass through the perovskite (Figure 4. Principle of a tandem solar cell operation). Through this structure, silicon solar cells can achieve 44% efficiency, which is higher than its theoretical limit of 30%.
(The top sell absorb shorter wavelength light and longer wavelength light that pass the cell will be absorbed in the bottom cell.)
This fabrication method has a number of technical issues to overcome since the perovskite solar cell should be added on to the silicon solar cell. The two different solar cells must be connected to each other electronically, and the development of a transparent medium layer is required. In addition, since perovskite and module productions are processed at low temperatures, the development of new materials and process is necessary. A high-level silicon manufacturing technology is also essential as the silicon solar cell must be optimized for the tandem structure.
Q CELLS becomes a global top-tier company with proprietary technologies
I believe that Korea has secured the most favorable position for the commercialization of perovskite-silicon tandem technology, as it is adept at developing both high-efficiency silicon technology and perovskite technology. I am also confident that this will set the direction to develop the super-gap technology to overcome China’s economies of scale.
Q CELLS was selected as a national research project organization for the next-generation solar cell technology “perovskite/crystalline silicon solar cell (tandem cell)” at the “2020 Renewable Energy RD Project Evaluation” held by Korean Energy Technology Evaluation and Planning (KETEP) at the end of 2019. I hope that Q CELLS will dominate the rapidly growing PV market in the near future with the successful commercialization of perovskite-based solar cells by securing advanced technologies.
Perovskite: new Type of Solar Technology paves the Way for abundant, cheap and printable Cells
Silicon solar cells are an established technology for the generation of electricity from the sun. But they take a lot of energy to produce, are rigid and can be fragile.
However, a new class of solar cell is matching their performance. And what’s more, it can now be printed out using special inks and wrapped flexibly around uneven surfaces.
We have developed the world’s first rollable and fully printable solar cell made from perovskite, a material that is much less expensive to produce than silicon. If we can also improve their efficiency, this points to the possibility of making cheaper solar cells on a much greater scale than ever before.
Scientists at Swansea University have pioneered a printable and rollable solar cell. Swansea University, Author provided
The silicon solar cells that are so recognisable to us have a significant limitation. If enough were made to cover our needs, we could run out of the materials to make them by 2050. So, we need something new and lots of it. The perovskite solar cell is emerging to fill that gap.
Perovskite is a crystal structure made with inorganic and organic components, named after Lev Perovski, a Russian mineral expert of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Perovskite solar cells first appeared in research labs in 2012 and caught the attention of researchers due to two factors: their ability to convert sunlight into electricity, and the potential for creating them from a combination of inks.
In research labs, using highly controlled production methods in environments where oxygen and water are completely removed, perovskite solar cells can now match the electricity generation of silicon solar cells. This is a remarkable achievement.
But cheap perovskite solar cells that do away with silicon have yet to be manufactured on a commercial scale. So what if these materials could be produced using the same sorts of processes we use for printing ordinary packaging?
My colleagues and I recently demonstrated that a roll of plastic film can be loaded into a printing press, and working perovskite solar cells emerge at the other end. However, it’s not quite as simple as pouring ink into your desktop printer.
For one thing, scientists have found that to achieve record efficiencies, the semiconductor and perovskite layers in this new form of solar cell must be extremely thin – between 50 and 500 nanometres (about 500 times smaller than a human hair).
Also, the inks used to print them had required highly toxic solvents. But, after many years of effort, we have now formulated inks without toxic solvents that are compatible with the slot-die coating process – an established industrial technique originally used for the production of photographic film.
How our solar cell works
The printed perovskite layer generates free electrons from the energy provided by light hitting it. The semiconductor then prevents the perovskite re-absorbing these electrons with a good power conversion efficiency (the ratio of optical power in to electrical power out).
One problem remained: how to extract the electrical charge. In the past, this had been achieved by heating gold in a vacuum until it evaporated, and catching the vapour on the perovskite solar cell to form electrodes.
We took a different approach, creating a carbon ink compatible with both the perovskite material and the slot-die coating process. The result is large volumes of flexible, rollable solar cells that come out of the printing press ready to generate power.
Perovskite solar cells have demonstrated high performance in research labs, and have now been proven capable of making the leap to high-volume manufacturing. But the job is not quite done yet.
The 10% power conversion efficiency achieved by these rollable printed cells is useful, and higher than the first commercial silicon panels. But it lags behind the typical 17% conversion efficiency of domestic solar panels in use today.
We know there are further increases available by taking advantage of higher-performing perovskite chemistry.
There is an engineering challenge to overcome in order that high-volume, commercially produced perovskite solar panels can match the energy generation of silicon. Further improvements in the lifetime stability of perovskite solar cells are also required – through a combination of chemistry, device design, and other strategies such as protective coatings and laminated barrier films.
In short, research needs to FOCUS on converting what’s happening in the labs into real-world devices. But the possibility of producing hundreds of thousands of square metres of flexible perovskite solar cells is now a step closer.
David Beynon, Senior Research Officer at the SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre, Swansea University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
About the Author
The Conversation is an independent, not-for-profit media outlet that works with academic experts in their fields to publish short, clear essays on hot topics.