Making solar energy cheaper (Day 267)

Making solar energy cheaper (Day 267)

18th February 2015

The development of methods to produce greener, cleaner energy plays on the minds of many of us. However, our ability to take the next step and move these strategies forward is often stopped by the dirtiest of all things – money.

Professor Andrew Barron, Ser Cymru chair in engineering at Swansea University, indicates that costs can be reduced up to 20 per cent through changes in the manufacturing process of photovoltaic (PV) panels.

I hope that work like Andrew’s will help us to better understand all the costs and benefits associated with the many different strategies of producing energy and enable us to make more informed decisions based on what is financially possible, as well as what is environmentally viable.

Photo Credit | Swansea University Energy Safety Research Institute (ESRI)

Andrew now heads up Swansea University’s new Energy Safety Research Institute (ESRI), which focuses on the safety issues surrounding the development and expansion of existing energy processes, as well as the safe deployment and integration of new green energy technologies.

Andrew says that “both the US and China have a stated goal of further reducing the cost of solar-generated electricity. We need to look at the cost per kilowatt/hour of solar energy produced, just as we do with other energy sources – coal, oil, gas, nuclear – if solar is to compete.”

I have to agree with his thinking, if we want to move these technologies forward and make them possible on a large scale, we need to be having realistic conversations about the costs involved, as well as discussing how green they really are.

Many materials have been developed for use in solar panels (‘Spray-on solar cells’), but silicon-based PV panels still account for around 85-90 per cent of the solar market. To work effectively they need to absorb as much light as possible, which means that it is vital to reduce the amount of light they reflect.

Photo Credit | Swansea UniversityProfessor Andrew Barron

Andrew explains that “a key requirement for an efficient solar cell is a low surface reflectance, to maximise the amount of incident photons absorbed by the semiconductor, to convert the incident light into electrical energy.”

However, it is these anti-reflection coatings applied to panels that are so costly.

The coating currently used cuts the amount of light reflected back by 2 per cent. So-called black silicon does even better, as it has a reflectance level of less than 1 per cent, but it is even more expensive to produce.

This is where Andrew anticipates that his work can make a difference; black silicon is often made using a process called metal-assisted chemical etching, which combines silicon with metal nanoparticles. By modifying this process, replacing hydrogen peroxide with phosphorous acid, black silicon can be produced using cheaper chemicals.

Andrew concludes that “it is this type of cost saving through the development of new materials processes that offers the best route to grid parity of solar with traditional carbon-based energy sources.”

I commend Andrew on his good and important work. If you are working to make different methods of producing energy more cost effective why not get in touch and tell your story.