Solar Cells, Half Off

A company named Leap Photovoltaic claims they have a technology to create solar panels without silicon wafers which would cut production costs in half. According to [FastCompany] the cells are still silicon-based, but do not require creating wafers as a separate step or — as is more common — acquiring them as a raw material.

The process is likened to 3D printing as silicon powder is deposited on a substrate. The design claims to use only a tenth of the silicon in a conventional cell and requires fewer resources to produce, too.

This sounds a lot like amorphous silicon cells which have been around for a while. We assume the trick is they’ve found a cheaper way to produce them using off-the-shelf equipment. These cells are typically lower in performance than crystalline cells. We don’t know if Leap has a way to improve the solar cell’s output.

Where can you get them? Not so fast. Plans are to have pilot production in 2023 with widespread availability by 2024. If the cells do produce less power per unit area, their success will depend on cutting costs so that a bigger unit is cheaper than a smaller crystalline panel. Even then, in some applications surface area matters.

The again, not all solar cells use silicon at all. You can even make some of them yourself.

34 thoughts on “Solar Cells, Half Off

    1. The talk about Perovskite makes me guess it’s a pie in the sky subsidy scam, it has no technical readiness. The microgrooves do look like an interesting way to make flexible panels more hail resistant, it allows some elasticity even if the film itself can not elongate without cracking.

      I foresee a future where EPDM roof rubber just comes with thin film PV on top as standard, because it just doesn’t matter enough in price not to have it.

  1. Amorphous solar cells aren’t significantly worse in performance but they do have the unique advantage of working regardless of what angle you position them in.

    As I recall, a big issue with producing large panels is finding a protective film that will cure without expanding or contracting as that will detach the silicon shards from the metal base. If they have formulated something cheap and super reliable then they have quite the product, especially if it could enable you to cover cars in solar cells.

    1. “working regardless of what angle you position them in”

      They still need light…

      While it’s largely a thing that the amorphous cells performance doesn’t fall off as fast as other types as light dims, it’s not as useful as many companies proclaim. The crystaline cells will also output power in cloudy conditions. But does it really matter when the avaliable power at this choked light performance in all cases is only a few % (optimistically) of full sun performance?

      I mention this as a solar company attempted to convince me that putting thin film panels on the north face of a UK property was a great thing. No. Panels in shade are a silly idea. Panels in full sun are potentially useful. Any shadow or angle offset degrades performance for all types because it lowers irradiance. And irradiance is solar panel food.

      1. the difference between angle of incidence and total insolation. you can have a direct sunny day with a single angle of incidence shining on a Crystalline Cell, so you build a tracker to keep the AoI perpendicular to the plane of the cell

        or you have Amorphous Cells which are AoI-Agnostic, so the peak output may be lower for direct sun with equal insolation, but the cell is receiving insolation from the entire skyfield, not just the axial sunlight, so it doesn’t fall on its face when it gets cloudy. You still want to have at least single-axis tracking for Amorphous Cells but the falloff isn’t as severe as with Crystalline

      2. In the right locations its quite possible putting cells on a non sun facing side of a building is still going to net reasonable power – you won’t get the huge spike of noon directly on the panels but you can end up with alright returns,comparable but still worse to non sun tracking panel lined up at your noon day sun position through much of the evening and morning .

        Without knowing the location it might be completely stupid, or it might not – I’d certainly not suggest putting cells in such poor orientation unless you really need more output power than you can get on the better sides, or something. But with how cheap the panels now are it might well be worth it to test one at that sort of angle and see what the real world performance is.

        1. Totally agree. Facing north and in the shade, never ever getting direct sun, where indirect light is about 1000th as intense as direct would give about 1000th or less as much power. But where some direct sun can hit it, by pointing E or W or ideally SE or SW, then yes, solar’s good to go. Pretty difficult to pick up a house and turn it around to alter the roof angle…

          On a tinkering level – I’ve installed a setup in Finland where the panels are mounted vertically on the end of a barn and not on a roof. While they’re pointing almost directly South, they’re not at the optimum angle. Tested before installing by tilting one freely and found we’re sacrificing a little over 20% of the power. Solved it by adding a panel. Anyhow, the reason for this, despite lots of roof space available is simple – can’t get covered in snow and so continue topping up the batteries all year around with no faff what so ever.

          Have considered putting some panels on the West wall of the barn too. Up there the days are very long and in summer it’s seldom cloudy, or if it is, then generally not all day. People generally use more power in the afternoon/evening, so it may help the batteries out a bit. That’s certainly not optimal for performance, but might be, for a specific use. They would be visible, so going for black panels and mounting them in a faux window frame(s) would be a great way to diminish the eyesaw.

          1. I too have limited roof area that I can use and in odd directions.
            If not perpendicular to the sun you get a cosine-dropoff which isn’t too bad under 30 degrees.

            But one thing that occurred to me is that degradation is probably proportional to incident-sunlight integrated over time, so if you’re panels are shaded part of the day or at funny angles, they’ll last longer.

          2. Personally I don’t think solar cells need by an eyesore at all – they just look like a wall of blackish render if you pack them in neatly enough – at least from a distance, closer they obviously have more texture and patterns on, but still done neatly I don’t think you need to worry about ‘hiding’ them as faux windows…

            West is a great angle to put panels on exactly as you say people tend to have higher draw in the evening when those panels will be working more optimally – If you can’t have proper solar tracking mounts etc you are far better off with panels facing sunward and east and sunward and west than dead on sunward for most folks – as the peaks of draw at home tend to be mornings and evenings – you won’t get as much peak power out of the panels as they could get pointed dead south, but you don’t need so much power then in general (and both morning/evening tilts are working reasonably efficiently then anyway).. Of course unless you are building a new build you pretty much have to deal with whatever your building already is…

            I would suggest the vertical mounted panels could be put on lever arms you can lock at vertical and a somewhat more optimal less than vertical angle – unless they stick out into the way doing that or shade each other its worth the effort to keep a better angle when you can (not that we do here, worth it or not is too much effort as ours are just bolted to the roof – but in the southern half of the UK meaningful snow is so astonishingly rare, and with the panels generally being quite warm its not ever likely to settle or last more than a few hours – not an issue here).

          3. >In the Winter, a south facing wall in Finland can get a lot of sun if it has an exposed snow field next to it.

            More likely, it has a tree or another building. Winter sun casts long shadows.

          1. Can perhaps also work out is ‘north’ facing really means pointed straight at an empty sky – just with a little bit of north – clearly not going to make a direct sunward facing system, but pointed mostly up it will still be able to work fairly well – at least if you use the right parts.

    2. As the cost of PV falls faster than the cost of grid tie inversion, somewhere it makes sense to have some panels face slightly east, and some slightly west. You may not get optimal generation, but you do get increaced utilization of your grid tie inverter.

      You have an expensive piece of hardware that only works a few hours a day. With cheap panels, extending your solar day makes sense.

      1. No it has been debunked, you get better total energy generation facing south.
        Only if you have no south facing mounting, then you can use a east/west dual orientation to spread the generation trough the day.
        So use south then add east/west. Not the other way.

  2. Until production units have been through an independent assessment lab I’d not trust a word that comes out of that sector. Look that the Nikola Motors debacle if you want a very recent cautionary tail.

  3. Coatings and terminations, 2 gotchas. Work on it. Also recyclable?

    In that picture above I see dead ground, there is some work going on to grow something there. Otherwise all that ground covered in gravel or mulch will have to be poisoned on a regular basis. Life will find a way even if it’s some invasive weed or bush like Japonica Honeysuckle Bush. That’s one of the worst we have now, maybe if the panels are up higher than that crap will grow? Its wood is hard so maybe worth to burn or process.

  4. Phew, its hard not to think that the green wave currently the flavour of the year, will conspire to produce a raft of “guaranteed to be at least interesting” start ups funded from dubious sources especially in the US. Remember the US Company that managed to get heaps of Federal money to plough into their ground breaking/ breakthrough PV solar panel where plastic lenses were arranged over the solar cells to concentrate the sunlight onto the poor solar cell…only to find that their in house graduate scientists had failed to realise what happened to the power output of the cells when you over cooked them. Then we have had the global promotion of thin film panels , which really haven’t have a great run…and many companies have now closed of their production…It’s also rather odd to hear about the shortage of silicon ingots for making PV modules, especially when you know that years ago when Californian companies were stopped from exporting their ingots to China, China was forced to design the furnaces and make their own ingots…I know..I was there at the time..and it took them about 6 mths to do the work. They now grow the biggest ingots in the world. Yes working with “standard” cells is not as easy as thin film printing something on a substrate to generate a tiny flow of electrons, but the manner in which manufacturers are successfully squeezing out the last watt per square metre for reliable panels that end up on solar farms is super encouraging and we have to give the Chinese credit where its due for creating the PV commodity that we have today. There is a certain irony in all of this, when we hear that there are container ships loaded with solar modules sitting outside US ports that the US Govt has decided they will not unload them, because China needs to be squeezed economically ….the thinking goes. Who is being hurt by this nonsense?….just the ordinary American public.

      1. Possibly Ostracus, there’s an old saying horses for courses. A few startups have tried to push water cooled panels, but for super sized solar farms, simple straightforward robust framed glass protected modules really are the gold standard. Glass glass modules are good in desert conditions where the sand can easily destroy the backing material on standard panels. Thin film panels just don’t cut the mustard where there are high levels of UV radiation. They degrade quite quickly.

  5. Nice to see soooo many people involved with PV Panels…

    Now that the “chips have essentially fallen in place” it would be nice to focus our Attention on DOING IT and START ELIMINATING POLLUTION … ONE INSTALLATION AT A TIME….

    Imagine if car buyefs waited and waited and waited for better.. more efficient.. perfect cars… we would ALL be just… waiting….

    So let ALL jump on the bandwagon of Renewable Energy and start nailing the Coffin of the Fossil/Nuclear Polluting Industries…. one nail at a time…. THIS BEAST NOT GO AWAY BY JUST LOOKING-N-WATCHING… as it kills Millions Annually and Billions suffer from it … aka Pollution…


    IT’S EASY … IF YOU TRY….!!!!

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