New technology focuses the sun to cut solar's cost

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A fledgling but fast growing solar technology that multiplies the sun’s power up to many hundreds of times promises to deliver cheaper electricity than traditional panels and has received the backing of some major industry players.

Called concentrating photovoltaic solar, or CPV, the technology is best suited for very sunny, desert-like locations and could face some near-term challenges. Those include a sharp drop in the price of its top competition—mainstream solar panels—and a financing environment that can be skittish about new technology bets.

That hasn’t stopped some big corporations from moving into the space, however, with US solar company SunPower Corp and Swiss engineering company ABB Group making significant bets on CPV in recent months. Previously, the technology had been primarily the domain of a handful of Silicon Valley startups.

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“This is the only model which is viable in the long run because this model is very competitive without the kind of subsidies which have been supporting the PV market for the last decade,” said André-Jacques Auberton-Hervé, chief executive of French semiconductor materials maker Soitec SA, which bought a majority stake in German CPV maker Concentrix Solar in 2010.

CPV’s market share is still tiny, with just 689 megawatts of projects in development compared with 33,000 MW of installed non-concentrating solar panels globally, according to GTM Research. It is expected to grow quickly to more than 1 gigawatt of new installations by 2015, but its share of the market would remain small given its geographic limitations. In 2015, CPV would still represent less than 4 percent of the solar market.

Though CPV technologies vary widely, their fundamental similarity is the use of lenses or mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto very efficient photovoltaic cells. Tracking systems are used to capture maximum sunlight.

Because the sun’s power is literally multiplied, fewer solar cells which are made from costly semiconductor materials are needed. That’s a major advantage, CPV manufacturers say, as renewable energy is still racing to reduce its cost so it can compete without government subsidies with nuclear, coal and natural gas fired power.

According to GTM Research, the cost of a high efficiency CPV system is roughly equivalent to other PV projects today but is poised come down faster than other solar technologies. By 2020, CPV systems are expected to cost $1.20 a watt, compared with about $1.67 per watt or more for systems made from rival PV technologies.

Other large energy players entering the CPV space include ABB, which last month paid $20 million for a minority stake in GreenVolts, a California startup backed by venture capital firm Oak Investment Partners. ABB will market the company’s systems to utilities and businesses worldwide.

Soitec, meanwhile, has teamed up with conglomerate Johnson Controls Inc, which will develop projects with its technology.

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