HIGH-PROFILE Blyth-based renewable energy group Narec has been included as part of a team looking to drive down the cost of solar cells.
The national centre for renewable and low-carbon technologies is very active in wind, marine and solar technology development, and recently won a place in a team investigating solar efficiency.
The 7m euro (£6m) 20Plus project will run for three years and has 5m euros of funding from Europe, with the remainder paid by participating companies such as Photovoltech, ENI and Q-Cells.
Narec process technologist Alex Cole said: “The idea is to make 20% efficient solar cells using crystalline silicon wafers less than 100 micrometres thick. The majority of the energy that goes into the process goes into the creation of the wafer itself.
“The way you get these silicon wafers is by getting a giant ingot and slicing it. Therefore if you can slice more up you can sell more and charge less for a wafer.
“It has to be feasible for industry, and there are real issues with handling as soon as the wafers get too thin as they can break easily.”
The wafers are currently about 200 micrometres thick and run at 17% or 18% efficiency. The team assembled to handle the challenge includes utilities companies, module testers and cell manufacturers. The research is driven by the strategic research agenda of the European Union, which hopes to see the typical turn-key system price reduced to 2.5 euros a watt by 2015 and one euro per watt by 2030.
Cole said: “The driver in photovoltaics is mainly cost. In general all the end user cares about is how much their electricity is going to cost. You can either increase the efficiency or decrease the cost of production.
“One way to decrease the cost is to develop new processes and increase scale. We find a lot of cell manufacturing is done in China because you can get enormous scale, but in Europe we’re pushing the efficiency side of things.”
Narec raises income using what it calls a “three-legged stool”, comprising research and development projects, consultancy work and cell and module sales. It is also lead coordinator of the Snapper marine wave energy extraction project, and has been recently named as part of a 20m euro five-year project part-funded by the European Commission to develop technology for offshore wind.
Cole was lined up to speak alongside Professor Hari Reehal of London South Bank University at this year’s Solar Flair conference in County Durham’s Lumley Castle, which is into its second and final day today.