Solar energy is a rapidly evolving industry that is becoming an increasingly large portion of the standard utility energy mix. CEA’s team members bring a high level of both commercial and engineering expertise developed through years of experience in the renewable energy industry. With an industry leading knowledge base and network, CEA takes pride in providing clients with insight into various aspects and components of the solar energy system.
Crystalline PV modules
The crystalline solar PV module industry has over a fifty year track record of success and development in the energy sector. Over the past few years the global photovoltaic module sector has matured and become more mainstream, with rapid cost reductions and globalization of the supply chain attracting manufacturers to scale operations. Allocating significant resources towards the construction of solar energy plants and developing economies of scale in order to manage such decreases in average selling price has led to a shift in the market. Consequently, while future growth may be muted, global energy market share in countries with large amounts of sunlight will likely continue to grow. Chinese manufacturers, thanks to favorable cost structures, economies of scale, and government incentives, have become very attractive to CEA’s downstream partners who are seeking ways to remain competitive while facing shrinking domestic subsidies. In 2005, manufacturers in Asia represented less than 5% of overall global production capacity; today, China produces over two thirds of the world’s PV modules.
The photovoltaic process converts radiant solar energy into direct current electrical energy. Solar cells are small semiconducting devices, generally comprising a positive layer diffused on one side with a negative dopant to produce a current when bombarded by photons. Solar cells are then assembled into a module with various other encapsulation materials, through which electricity is processed and sent to an inverter, where it is converted into usable energy.
As the global market for PV modules becomes more attractive, many new Chinese manufacturers have emerged, with varying degrees of quality. Other more established companies have started cutting corners in an effort to meet high production quotas. In this environment, Western buyers of solar components need a diversified sourcing strategy and knowledge of how to deal with Chinese suppliers directly. Major supplier issues include:
- Poor product appearance
- Low product performance
- Fire and electrical safety risk
- High quality suppliers relying on OEMs
- Poor in-house testing
- Negligence of triple-bottom line standards
- Questionable financial situation
The CEA Advantage
International downstream companies that wish to benefit from Chinese market advantages must structure their relationships with care in order to avoid common pitfalls that arise while engaging in international business. Clean Energy Associates (CEA) is keenly aware of the need for trusted advisors who understand the operating environment in China and Asia in addition to the solar PV value chain and global business climate. By engaging the executive management teams of top-tier and rising second-tier solar component suppliers, CEA can assist clients in achieving market-leading terms and conditions for their procurement and quality assurance needs. In addition, with unstable supply chain and international trade tariff conditions, CEA’s international team of solar professionals provide clients with a clear path towards future solar success.
Thin film PV modules
Thin film solar cell manufacturers begin the production of solar cells by depositing several layers of a light-absorbing material, a semiconductor, onto a substrate – coated glass, metal, or plastic. The materials used as semiconductors are thin because they are able to absorb energy from the sun very efficiently. As a result, thin film solar cells are sometimes lightweight, durable and easy to use, while in other cases they are formed on a piece of heavier glass. There are three main types of thin film solar cells, depending on the type of semiconductor used: amorphous silicon (a-Si), cadmium telluride (CdTe) and copper indium gallium (di)selenide (CIGS). Amorphous silicon is a trimmed-down version of the traditional silicon-wafer cell. According to the IEA, thin film technology accounted for approximately 20% of the global market in 2014, and analysts expect this trend to continue.
thin film technology works by having a light-absorbing silicon semiconductor placed on top of a glass substrate. The light weight and flexible design of the module lends the technology to a variety of uses. Because thin film uses one thin sheet instead of a solid panel of many cells, it is much more versatile than rigid multi-crystalline PV modules, making it suitable for integration into building design (BIPV). While the technology is currently of a lower efficiency than standard PV modules, its ability to conduct electricity in ambient light situations, strong temperature coefficients, and low cost structure make companies such as First Solar and Solar Frontier competitive in some cases.
As a technology in competition with the standard PV industry, the thin film manufacturing process is subject to a number of quality control issues, such as thickness variations, chemical contaminants, and scribe lines. Sodium contamination can occur during manufacturing or after the module is complete, and capacitance issues cannot be detected using flash tests. Applying too much copper in the manufacturing process can lead to quick degradation, and poor glass cutting processes can lead to smaller cracks that can spread later.
The CEA Advantage
As the thin-film industry grows, CEA has remained ahead of the curve, analyzing new manufacturing processes, market conditions, and developing relationships with major thin-film players. CEA has visited over a dozen factories in the US, Japan, Malaysia, Germany and has extensive expertise in evaluating the quality of such automated facilities. CEA’s expertise in thin-film provides client with a strong third-party partner in analyzing the financial and technical viability of thin-film modules for their projects.
The design and stable production of solar inverters is a complicated, and often overlooked aspect of the solar value chain. Inverter failures have been responsible for a significant percentage of system outages throughout the modern era of solar energy. In addition, solar inverters typically have shorter standard warranty periods when compared to PV modules, and can cause major system disruptions if they need to be replaced. Inverters play an important role in the global PV business, with supply and demand trends often running parallel to those of PV modules. In addition, technological advancements have increased inverter efficiency, and also brought new inverter products to the market, such as string inverters, optimizers, and microinverters, presenting new opportunities for levelized cost of energy (LCOE) optimization. Various inverter manufacturing markets throughout the world, including China, are seeking greater penetration into global markets, as manufacturing costs continue to decline.
Inverters are the technology component that converts DC power generated from solar modules into AC power that can be injected into the grid. In utility-scale installations the conversion can be carried out using central grid-tied inverters located throughout the site, at the module string level via string inverters, or using micro-inverters installed on the back of each PV module. Inverter technology has experienced great improvement over the past few years and has given rise to products that utilize innovations such as Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) in order to enhance efficiency, and anti-islanding protection as a form of increasing safety.
Inverters include many components and thus have more potential failure points than any other equipment in a PV system. Inverter performance issues can be a nightmare for system owners, as even minor electronic or communication issues could cost owners thousands of dollars. System stress can also cause electrical failures – a problem exacerbated in hot weather where solar farms are most often located. For all of these reasons, quality control and reliability testing are critical in the inverter industry, as the high level of manual (as opposed to automated) manufacturing and testing processes required to build these units can increase risk of assembly error. It is critically important to make sure that inverters are tested appropriately before purchasing, in order to avoid post-installation power losses and other issues.
The CEA Advantage
CEA’s quality assurance expertise provides clients with the peace of mind that inverters leaving the factory will perform at their maximum capacity, while at the same time adhering to all safety codes and regulations. The CEA team is able to verify successful factory acceptance testing completion for inverters, and oversee packing and loading for inverters of all types and sizes. CEA can also provide transparency for production timelines, thereby minimizing the risk of unexpected delivery delays and saving buyers from many headaches. In addition, our team is able to develop forward-thinking technological strategies in order to provide clients with insight into future market and pricing trends related to various inverter technologies. Lastly, CEA is uniquely suited to provide owner’s engineering services such as one-line designs, incorporation of inverters into PVSyst output simulations, and overseeing installations at the site as an Owner’s Engineering representative.
Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar produce power on an intermittent basis – solar during the day and wind at night. For energy to be used efficiently, and to combat sudden spikes and dips in energy production, the application of a local energy storage system is oftentimes deemed necessary. Manufacturers of renewable energy technology are making efforts in energy storage research and development in order to supply this growing need. A natural combination with solar PV, energy storage systems are becoming increasingly popular in both on and off-grid applications.
Lithium-Ion battery applications represent the most commonly available form of energy storage, and recent advances in these and lead-acid batteries have spurred rapid adoption of energy storage systems and related technologies. Energy storage encompasses a wide range of technologies, from molten salt used for heat storage at Concentrated Solar Power facilities, to flywheels used for mechanical storage in vehicles, wind turbines, and other appliances and machines. Battery storage technology has only recently achieved a commercial price point at which it can be reasonably expected to be adopted without significant subsidies. High costs have inhibited rapid adoption of this technology in the past; however, as manufacturers scale up and costs come down, the battery storage market should see significant growth.
China is currently the leading producer of batteries, however the quality and efficiency of batteries can be extremely inconsistent. Many advanced battery makers have experienced flaws in technology and/or performance, which compromises worker safety and system performance. Pre-installation testing as well as strict monitoring of the production process is necessary in order to ensure that products are properly certified and will perform up to their optimum standards.
The CEA Advantage
CEA has conducted extensive market research on grid-tied energy storage systems and their relative availability for adoption by the solar PV industry. In addition, the CEA team has visited dozens of battery manufacturers on behalf of clients and industry representatives. As analysts expect the storage market to expand over the coming years, CEA seeks to aid clients in understanding these technological developments and future opportunities.