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The Solar Panel Doctors (Inside Climate News)

Manufacturers are ramping up production of a new kind of solar panel that’s 10 percent more efficient than the standard silicon panels used by utilities today. But there’s a catch—big questions remain about whether these panels will last as long out in the elements.

The longer the panels last, the lower the price of power becomes—and the more likely solar power will beat out the cost of fossil fuels.

That’s where Roger French and his team at Case Western Reserve University come in: They’re studying how, why and when the new solar panels deteriorate. Developers are eager for the results, because the longer a panel lasts, the cheaper it becomes over the longterm.

The new panels are called PERC (which stands for Passivated Emitter Rear Cell). They can produce more energy because they have a back panel that reflects light, and the system can capture some of the energy from the reflection, adding to the energy output of the panel.

French is working under a grant from the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative to analyze how the panels’ materials work together and project how well they’ll be operating in 20, 30 or even 50 years.

With that data, panel manufacturers can make changes to reduce deterioration. And as manufacturers extend the life of solar equipment, it changes the cost equation for developers, making larger projects cheaper.

“All of that is targeted to get utility-scale photovoltaics to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour,” French said.

That figure, which applies to utility-scale solar projects, is dirt cheap. It refers to the levelized cost of energy, an equation in which the life of the equipment is a key variable.

The 3-cents goal is not directly comparable to the current retail electricity prices because it does not include delivery costs and other charges, but it would be less expensive than most of today’s leading electricity sources.

In addition to pushing down costs, French wants to see panels built that routinely last for more than 40 years, and he wants to see annual deterioration drop down to a fraction of a percentage point per year, improving upon the remarkable longevity of today’s equipment.
SunShot Revisited

When French talks about 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, he’s not pulling a number out of the air. That is the target price set for 2030 under the Department of Energy’s SunShot program.

The SunShot initiative started in 2011 with an ambitious goal of cutting the cost of utility-scale solar energy to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour by 2020, which was a 75 percent reduction.

The 6-cent goal was met in 2017, according to a report from last September, spurred by greater competition from imported panels, technological advancements and economies of scale. By the time it was reached, the program had already set the new goal of 3 cents.

“At $0.03 per kilowatt-hour, electricity from utility-scale photovoltaic solar would be among the least expensive options for new power generation and it would be below the cost of most fossil fuel-powered generators, contributing to greater energy affordability,” the Energy Department says in a fact sheet about SunShot.

The research by French and his colleagues, along with similar work taking place at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and among manufacturers, involve some of the nitty-gritty improvements that will help make the goal a reality.

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