Potential of Photovoltaics in the US
With new advancements in technology emerging every day, advanced photovoltaics manufacturing has become one of the most exciting industries expecting new growth in the near future. Under the Biden Administration, the US has agreed to pursue aggressive innovation in renewables, especially in regards to high-tech innovations of the Solar power energy industry. The Green New Deal policy supported by the Biden administration, and mutually recognized abroad by US allies, targets renewable wind, solar, geothermal, and alternative fuels like hydrogen and bio-diesel. In theory, when renewables can be maximized and used together, this forms the principal renewable energy solution and renewable resource allocation expected to surmount fossil fuel consumption. The Green New Deal in concept approaches new investment and advocates for wide implementation of all renewable energy resources through policies like government subsidies for utility start-ups and tax incentives for consumers who access these renewable resources.
In order for the environmentalist policy to impact renewable energy consumption to meet utility and industrial capacity on a large scale, it is pertinent that renewables gain parity and surpass fossil fuels with wide accessibility and low rates comparable or cheaper than fossil fuels. Ultimately, this new policy expects employable renewable energy resources to surpass fossil fuel energy consumption. As the world embraces alternative energy with an eye on climate change and sustainability, sharp new political expectations that rest on renewable energy resources place Solar energy in, perhaps, the most promising category of emergent renewable energy resources.
For example, to show the potential of solar energy, in a report from the World Bank claimed, “In Ethiopia, just 0.005% of the country’s land area could generate sufficient power to cover existing needs, and in Mexico, that figure is just 0.1%.” This directly correlates to the quality of the latest innovations in photovoltaic technology (World Bank, 2020).
Today, the latest photovoltaic glass research and developments are yielding consistent, high energy-gain capacity, and greater life-cycle potential. However, the development, and history of solar energy processes, and manufacturing may make photovoltaics the most technically complicated of all renewable energy resources as far as the public understands.
Photovoltaics’ inherent value as an indefinitely renewable clean energy source has been bought and sold by critics and supporters since it was first discovered as a natural phenomenon in the mid-1800s. Later, by 1922, Albert Einstein had proved the “photoelectric effect” (in short, he proved a phenomenon fundamental to photovoltaic systems, that photons of light hitting a semi-conductive membrane could generate electricity). This base of fact, that influences us today, supported his important “Theory of Relativity.”
Now a century later, photovoltaics have evolved into an efficient and viable technology. But it was not always that way. At large, some people have taken the technology for granted by passively accepting that discovering solar energy was the first and only step necessary in development. Now, under the new urgency of popular environmentalist agendas around the world, that ‘passivity’ towards renewables, in America, has switched into “renewed activity”. The latest innovation and development in photovoltaics have unprecedented performance that dwarfs what was possible to achieve in early and less complex photovoltaic systems.
Discovering solar energy was only one small piece of the puzzle. To really understand the current phase and the excitement behind innovations in the design, manufacturing, and distribution of photovoltaics we should take a further step back to confront a macro-economic picture of photovoltaics comparing old and new processes in innovation, design, and manufacturing.
As solar was first emerging as a commercial product, early designs of solar cells were far too inefficient and far too expensive for a majority of consumers to rely on a massive scale and remained a novelty. Many of us would have experienced photovoltaics only in pocket calculators. Since the 1950s, there have been steady attempts to increase solar cell efficiency. Over time, efficiency has increased, and this is a wonderful thing. But it has not been enough to attract early adopters.
Many factors have inhibited an early adoption of photovoltaics as an energy alternative to fossil fuels. For example, as late as the 2000s, the price of earlier and less efficient models serving as infrastructure for utility-scale energy consumption was prohibitively expensive. The photovoltaic materials from early models although efficient on paper, in practice, the technology most widely available deteriorates to sub-optimal efficiencies in less than 5 years. This leads to immensely high lifetime-use costs and meager ROI when compared to nuclear or fossil fuel as utility energy consumption. Only recently, and tied with emerging high-end photovoltaic technology, have new pro-renewable policies been served that levy expenses via government subsidization for building new infrastructure.
Over the latter half of the 20th Century, what has been even more puzzling about photovoltaic development has been that despite the end-user tech being expensive to produce, the essential raw materials remained cheap. Moreover – on a map – the raw materials for photovoltaics are fairly easy to locate within US borders.
US Raw Material Deposits. Source: USGS (https://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2010/5220/).
In the 1980s, the US stopped producing its own strategic reserves of raw materials as trade deals with China and the former Soviet Union were able to meet the US’s demands (and the world at large) for raw materials known as Rare Earth Elements (REE). Foreign markets could supply the US at cheaper rates than what any privately owned US industry competitor could match. High labor costs in the US were a root cause of this supply chain shift among other historic economic trends. As high technology consumer electronics emerged, Chinese market share in REE production skyrocketed alongside their production capacity to eclipse the declining Soviet Union and became the world leading producer in REE at a staggering pace. This trend in favor of Chinese market share in REE resources has produced dynamic economic strains on the photovoltaic industry in America.
So, raw materials for photovoltaics may appear cheap on paper, and these main materials needed for solar power might even consist of one of the Earth’s most abundant elements, Silicon. The sheer amount of human labor and material resources necessary to mine and refine the raw materials for photovoltaic silicon impacted industrialized manufacturing of photovoltaic glass outside of China.
Although silicon is one of Earth’s most plentiful semi-metallic elements – you could find silicon almost anywhere – why do photovoltaics need Silicon, and why is it difficult to make this profitable in the US? To start, silicon has semi-conductor properties. Semi-conductors are perfect for conditions required for structuring, storing, and transferring the electricity generated by PV glass. This semi-metallic, semi-conducting element serves as a superstructure for circuit boards in virtually all electronic devices. In PV glass, the silicon-based material composes a majority portion of the functional weight of photovoltaic glass. This places an exhaustive dual demand on the resource. A resource widely price controlled by China.
With a lot boding well for photovoltaics, why does allocating raw silicon matter if we can find it almost anywhere? To examine this question, we should explore more about the trade history of REE and how that could affect policy outcomes as new momentum builds from investment into renewable energy goals defined by The Green New Deal and the Paris Climate Accords.
In the 1980s, blue-collared heavy industry began to fade as newer, highly profitable, specialized services, and high-tech industries emerged in western economic models and demand only accelerated with the advent of computers and television. To support this economic shift, the Reagan Administration began a new trade policy that levied greater shares of imports of supply of REE materials into US markets. These relatively cheap materials were necessary to produce exorbitantly profitable consumer goods like computer chips and circuit boards in TVs and later high-tech like smartphones. As the story goes, these cheaper imports were made available due to China’s aggressive and decidedly firm control of REE mineral rights.
After China began to outpace the world in REE production, a few major changes became apparent. American heavy industries such as rare earth mining became unprofitable. The most obvious reason being that REE mining production for any party takes years to develop a mining vein and maintaining profitable yield margins itself becomes a constant expense. For a modern company in America to support the material and personnel that source the raw materials from the earth and refine them into usable products, those start-up costs for labor, modern environmental considerations, and permit and contractors’ fees will likely bankrupt a mining operation before it starts. Then you factor in the competitively low prices of the same materials sourced from China with a near-limitless reserve of cheap labor and raw materials, and you get what we have today: virtually no competition in REE production from the US is possible.
That fact leads to high risks in policy mandates. A big question that economists and geologists face: What if China extorts the world with its REE reserves to absorb market share in the critical industry due to their extensive control on REE?
And despite the high cost of extracting these critical raw materials at home, these individual miners are often not highly paid for the work they do. If you look at the history of US coal miners and their decline, you will see this pattern is consistent with another with silicon-based products.
Unfortunately, from a strategic trade standpoint, the blue-collar labor decline in the US occurred when specialized industries had emerged, and these new industries were then made dependent on foreign-derived raw materials. Many western economies had begun to pull out of large-scale industrial economic models such as mining of raw material by the end of the 1970s. In the years following, demand for REE only increased as the internet, TV, and software development emerged in more sophisticated products. This was a key economic shift that started in the 1970s and 1980s: the shift from blue-collar industrial economic plans to white-collar specialized/high tech industry, especially in the US.
In that same time frame, China filled a vacuum in raw material production. The Peoples Republic of China strategically invested a large part of its economy acquiring mineral rights around Rare Earth Element (REE) deposits and effectively monopolized production and refinement of REE through aggressively low pricing strategies. These processes of harvesting and refining raw materials take time and are expensive operations to start up. With government subsidization, China accessed its vast reverse of human resources to accelerate its market share in REE. Some experts do believe that over the years, China has acquired a monopoly on REE reserves and production. They now control more than 30% of REE deposits around the world. With much laying within their sovereign borders.
Effectively, what this shift has done to a private business in the US or the EU, is that China has created an economic client-state out of its potential competitors. By controlling prices, supply, and demand China’s competitors cannot hope to stay competitive in raw material production at the same level of scale. This has become a strong arm of their geopolitical and economic influence. The fact is that since the Chinese government subsidized their REE industry in the 1980s with intentions to absorb the majority of global market share in REE with fantastically low prices, any chance of privatizing the US or European competition for raw material reserves and production has been obliterated by the staggeringly low Chinese labor costs and their competitive pricing that deflates profit margins that a competitor would have competed to achieve. A centralized model of market manipulation cannot work inside of a capitalist consumer economy found most often in the western capitalist world the competitive profit margins outside of China are tough to beat.
The overhead expenses an ordinary company faces were ignored as China jockeyed its investments for the sake of the strategic economic power implied by the equally strategic commodity control of Rare Earth Elements production and refinement.
Now, why would China do this? From an early stage, perhaps even well before the blue-collar decline of the 1970s, the Chinese government understood they could secure these materials and grow their global influence and protect their interests domestically and abroad. Strategic resources such as REE serve China as an economic and political safeguard and a formidable source of power to confront the West.
It’s important to note that this early phase of the economic competition was not as apparent in the 1980s as it is today in the US. At the height of the Cold War, and as the Soviet Union declined, the West withdrew from heavy industry. As far as REE, then they had more market share within the Soviet Union for raw materials in REE than in China at the time these new trade policies started to lean on REE imports. As the Soviet Union’s global influence declined, the Chinese government worked hard to secure mineral rights abroad in the vacuum they left. As soon as they could and with persistent investment in mineral rights in former Soviet states, in East Africa, and in Asia to extend their reach, Chinese-owned companies would place aggressive bids on the strategic resources outside of their borders. By 2010, China’s market share in the global REE industry exceeded 30% of the entire world’s REE capacity.
The pervasive effects of China’s monopoly on REE production and commodities were not widely recognized or understood until 2010. In September 2010, there was a trade dispute that followed a political incident in the South China Sea between Japan and China. To dignify China’s global influence after the matter, China’s government strategically withheld REE exports to drive demand and prices higher as a warning of their potential to resist foreign pressure on what they viewed in the South China Sea as their economic sovereignty. With this act, the Chinese government proved they had the power to manipulate global supply chains and global pricing due to their share of REE production. Silicon has become one of these critical REE materials that China can manipulate supply and demand. The effects of this power have risen since the COVID-19 pandemic with global supply chain disruptions of critical systems reliant on high-tech materials sourced from China as well as other commodities.
The knock-on effects of Chinese dominance in REE production implied that expanding renewable solar energy around the world may well require massive investments and innovation in REE-derived products like solar energy. To achieve the grand scale of the Green New Deal policy, the US and other countries certainly depend on China too much for supply and demand to be priced and supplied fairly and consistently as the new demand increases for photovoltaics. This is where photovoltaic innovation in manufacturing becomes key.
With REE commodity prices and the supply chain of photovoltaic glass dependent on China, it falls on the US, her allied countries, and private companies to take a lead in advancing photovoltaic technology. Currently, photovoltaics from China are cheaper, but also wasteful and inefficient. A real fighting chance for American solar energy lies within the next few years. Experts, like Bill Pollock General Manager at Optimation, believe that if non-foreign companies manage to obsolete cheaper Chinese-made photovoltaics, that the global market share in photovoltaics may shift away from China only when and if solar manufacturing in the US doubles down on efficiency and affordability. Doubling down on specialization with a generational leap in performance on all fronts is the most direct way for companies to compete with the Chinese photovoltaic dominance. This implies that if successful in the US, the photovoltaic industry stands to benefit US economic growth as well as much as it stands to improve energy independence and environmental sustainability.
At Optimation Technology work has begun on innovative manufacturing processes that take photovoltaic manufacturing to a new level of practicality, affordability, and accessibility. There is a lot to unpack about the bright future in store for the US’s PV industry, so we have sampled this interview with Optimation General Manager, Bill Pollock, an expert on an innovative manufacturing process of PV glass that couples all of the strongest aspects of emerging tech and cost-effective manufacturing.
Interview with Bill Pollock, General Manger at Optimation Technology
Question One: Alright, so – photovoltaics. Bill, give me your best definition of what they are, and why you feel like they’re an important technology for the modern world.
Bill Pollock: Today … [photovoltaics are] all about the global reduction of hydrocarbons and carbon dioxide [pollution in the environement]. Solar cells: the photovoltaics, along with wind and other green [energy like] hydrogen, hydrocarbons are the way that we’re trying to go. And so the photovoltaic is the solar recovery part of the Green Energy momentum that’s going on right now. And there’s a lot of money going into manufacturing them, as well as a lot of money going into installing them, and a lot of [commercial and environmental demand] incentivizing people to install them.
Question 2 Where or when did Photovoltaics begin their bid as a serious alternative to fossil fuel? When did it all start photovoltaics?
BP: If you’re going to go back to the beginning, of course, they were pretty expensive and pretty inefficient. So it was always the small pieces [applications]. I mean, in Ethiopia, where I grew up, they would put in photovoltaic solar charging systems, and that would charge a car battery. And so you could run your radio at night when the sun wasn’t shining, but that’s about as far as it got.
Now, we’re talking about megawatts of electricity that are [harnessed] on big fields, but in between, you know, the farmers still use [their solar] chargers to charge the car battery to run an electric fence.
Question 3 Where do Photovoltaics start to impact society in light of the Green New Deal; how does PV reach parity or surpass fossil fuel?
BP: I think the big push for photovoltaic will happen on a massive scale. The [heavy] industry may use them to provide their power. That’s a valid application because [its cheaper and] it could be commercial, industrial or [individuals/residential] when you’re talking about using photovoltaics. But on smaller applications like road signs and emergency signs for roads and, and those kinds of things [are] where you’re going to see the little solar panels that keep the LED lit.
Question 4 How can the US compete and gain market share in Photovoltaic manufacturing?
BP: Okay, so if we talk about photovoltaics [and real-world implications of the growing industry], …the Chinese decided that they were going to dominate the world market and become the OPEC of solar energy. (OPEC in brief is a foreign trade alliance that has an incredible influence on supply chains and prices of crude oil.)[In China the government has] subsidized their own [photovoltaic] manufacturing plants, and started building huge production for photovoltaics [since the 1980s]. And, and because of that, I think 80% of the solar cells that are used globally, right now are made in China. In other places, a huge percentage of those are Chinese companies operating in other countries [even] in the United States. I think that we that [the US-owned photovoltaic industry hosts] five major solar manufacturers, and maybe two of them are Korean, and two of them are Japanese, but even the one dominant US manufacturer called First Solar, they have about 1% of the market, not that significant [compared to China].
By 2021, they’re estimating that the world spending on solar manufacturing, is about 20 billion, if all those green new deals that we have set in place, right now go through, and I don’t know which part is funded by what. [Now,] they’re anticipating the US will spend about 2 trillion over the next decade.
The [biggest] PROBLEM, since the Chinese are so established in the manufacture of solar cells, it’s hard for the United States to break into the market. China has poured investment into the world’s raw material production and effectively controls production costs. Mining silicon can be expensive over time and takes large start-up costs. The good news is that back in 2018, President Trump put a 30% tariff on the import, of Chinese solar cells. But it had a 5% reduction year over year. So here we are now, and we have a [import tariff of Chinese solar cells] about to run out. Then we’re not going to have [the same competitive price advantage to] Chinese-manufactured photovoltaics.
Same question: Part II How Can the US gain Market Share in the Photovoltaic Industry
The way for the US to leapfrog into the PV industry is to find different technologies [to specialize new manufacturing processes early as PV infrastructure is adopted.]
So we’re talking about the technology, most of [PV] technology is evolving around thin-film manufacturing. Using a mineral called [Perovskite as the film layer and with high-efficiency tandem cells designs.]
Chinese cells have been using silicon-based photovoltaic panels produced and sold as wafers and ingots and so forth at Low-cost and low efficiency is OK. [but not the only option.]
Tandem cell design and Thin-film Perovskite Cells have greater efficiency across a wider light spectrum thus increasing the power-to-weight ratio over silicon-based photovoltaics.
Low-cost high efficiency is better. [Perovskite Photovoltaics feature a] sort of a metal oxide [the perovskite] that’s coated [onto these photovoltaic cells to increase their efficiency across a broader spectrum of light.] A lot of research has gone into this … it can be used to increase the efficiencies and longevity of photovoltaic systems.
“If US manufacturers are going to make a breakthrough, it’s going to be using a newer, less expensive technology that doesn’t involve exclusive production of silicon sometime in the future. And we’re seeing that at Optimation”
Now, [here at Optimation, we are] looking at coating these metal oxides on [top of the photovoltaic] glass, and for the glass coating on the backside [of the PV glass]. [The thin-film coating of perovskite] will enhance … the longevity of the cells and [efficiency].[Longevity improves the cost-effectiveness with] big fields of massive amounts of solar cells. But in the past, typically what happened was that the efficiencies of these cells degrade over time, so that it’s out there and maybe it’s 20% or 25% efficient at the beginning and then [as little as] 5 years later, it’s rated at 10% efficient. [Older photovoltaics are not cost-effective with their short life cycles]. [Now, with Perovskite photovoltaics,] the lifespan [of solar cells, panels and arrays are up to] 10 or 12 years~ it’s pretty expensive, taking them back out and replacing them.
“The life cycle is as important as cost.”
Question 5 With thin-film manufacturing, Optimation is uniquely specialized in designing assembly-line processes via manage web-based roll-to-roll film making. How will Optimation position itself as an innovator in thin-film photovoltaic manufacturing in the US?
BP: [Here we are working with] Roll-to-roll, Web-based manufacturing of Perovskite film. And because of the thin film, there’s a certain amount of degradation that happens in the sun and so life can be sort of ruined depending on what substrates [interact with the thin-film perovskite].[Silicon] glass is more durable than film [and it provides a barrier]. So with the people who are doing research right now, there’s a big push – and Corning Glass has a product that is called Willow glass, which is a very thin glass that can be conveyed on rolls. And [using roll-to-roll, web-based manufacturing lines,] you can coat [masses of] solar cells by efficiently combining a glass roll and a thin-film roll web-based manufacturing line, [to scale production of advanced solar panels] is a lot more efficient than the sheet manufacturing [assembly] lines.
With web-based manufacturing, you simply cut the finished Photovoltaic roll into pieces after you’ve coated [entire rolls.] The film [is applied] over the [layers of] glass for use in the field in less time than individual sheet manufacturing. This is great for supplying public utility-scale manufacturing demands.
Question 6 Photovoltaic Film-substrate manufacturing does that sound like the future here at Optimation?
BP: [Aside from perovskite thin-film substrates,] other plastic substrates have been used. We were engaged because a certain number of the solar cells are put on sheet flat glass, as opposed to roll glass. We were engaged to build a batch plant for a Pilkington manufacturing glass facility sheet glass Facility A couple of years ago, which was built specifically so that the flat plaques could be used for solar manufacturing. So, you know, we’ve been peripheral to it, we’ll say but not directly engaged in solar cell manufacturing at this point.
“We see it as a very strong potential for the future. And so, we’re focusing our technology and development to become a larger player in [the photovoltaic industry.]”
Question 7 So you have been engaged in this field, not exclusively, but you have had some projects “peripheral” to the industry. Can you expand upon the work Optimation has had with Pilkington?
BP: At Pilkington, we were engaged … with building a batching plant to make sheet glass [assembly lines] for use with solar cells.
In the future, we believe the best returns are going to be in making printed cells on the thin rolled glass as opposed to sheet glass. And that’s where we think that our technology and capabilities will be stronger [and why we had a short-lived role at Pilkington. They [Pilkington] wanted to produce sheets instead of roll/web-based manufacturing.]
So as we move forward, we’re going to be developing, technologies that can be replicated so that we can develop conveyor systems for glass that can be sold to clients and used by different manufacturers who are trying to build their manufacturing lines for a roll-to-roll process we specialize in. [This is the best assembly method for us to maximize the cost-effectiveness of the perovskite thin-film coated solar arrays.]
Question 8 5-10-50 year outlook in Photovoltaic technology wide-spread adoption?
BP: Hard to know where we’re going to go in 5-10 years. Solar technologies take up a huge amount of space. To do so we’re going to find ways to use them more efficiently. right now the efficiencies of solar cells are – we’ll say, in the 20% range – and my guess is in 20 to 30 or in 40 years, we’re going to get them up to 70 or 80% range. So that’ll cut the space that’s required to deploy these down by a factor of three, or four, or five. In your standard home system, people will have all the electricity needed. And, if we keep building more and more efficient lights and more efficient motors.
So I think it’ll be pretty commonplace to have not just solar, but wind and [alternative] hydrocarbons of other sorts [The US and the world could be] energy independent from oil and gas in the next 40 or 50 years. So that’s exciting.
Question 9 Are there incentives? What about The Green New Deal? Government/Tax incentives?
BP: Well, I mean, there are manufacturers they’re throwing money [for early adoption,] but I think that the only major reason that this is possible [is with government incentives and manufacturing subsidies for start-ups].
It is true about wind and solar because of massive government grants from the Department of Energy but also huge tax breaks for people who implement them. If you wanted to put a solar panel system in your house today, then you’re going to find it not cost-effective If you don’t have a pretty good income with a pretty high tax bracket.
In other words, today, somebody who’s living on a minimum amount of Social Security or whatever will see no cost advantage to solar energy. [The success of solar energy] has to do with tax breaks and company start-ups who are incentivized with those benefits [and pass those savings onto consumers.]
Question 10 Bill, for you, what is most exciting about Photovoltaics in the future?
BP: I mean, photovoltaics has been something that we all dreamed about using on a large scale back when we were little kids half a century ago. And, and so now it’s, it’s pretty… it’s a lot of fun to see it coming to life and people using it and having real potential. So I mean, that’s the exciting part.
But then when you think about the potential of everyone accepting it, because in those days, maybe the efficiency was 5% or something [and] now we’ve taken it to 20%.
“So I guess the excitement is, how fast can we continue to evolve the technology, so we get high levels of efficiency, really long, longevity ease, …as opposed to being … marginal in terms of performance.”