Feature Report: Solar, an Energy of the Future

6 items of content in this feature report

Op-ed articles

The Futur of Solar Power

Sven Rösner
Sven RösnerDeputy Director of the French-German Office for Renewable Energy

"R&D is crucial in photovoltaics to position Europe in the high-efficiency solar cell segment"

R&D is crucial in photovoltaics to position Europe in the high-efficiency solar cell segment and differentiate the region's industry from the mass production coming out of Asian countries. Sven Rösner, Deputy Director of the French-German Office for Renewable EnergyEnergy sources that are naturally replenished so quickly that they can be considered inexhaustible on a human time scale... , tells Planète Energies about the perspectives offered by close cooperation between European researchers.

The European approach to developing photovoltaic solar energyEnergy produced by the photovoltaic effect. offers an alternative to price competition for conventional panels, which currently account for the vast majority of modules sold. In this market, eastern Asian countries, including China, have clearly established a dominant position. The European approach is to focus on improving cell efficiency and lifespan; developing new thin-film, poly- and mono-crystalline siliconSilicon crystals come from silica, the main compound in quartz and sand. Silicon is a semi-conducting material. and organic cell technologies; and improving production process efficiency. Another key objective is to improve ongoing training for module manufacturers.

This quest for quality is consistent with French and German industrial policy, which favors rooftop installations that take up less space over large ground-based solar farms.

For the approach to succeed, European countries need to work together. This is the goal of European Energy Research Alliance (EERA) joint programs, including those related to photovoltaic solar energy (EERA-PV). They combine 37 partners in 19 countries, with CEA-international nuclear and radiological event scale (ines)Scale used to classify the severity of nuclear incidents and accidents. It comprises 8 levels, from 0 to 7... , the Fraunhofer-ISE Institute of Freiburg and the Helmholtz Institute in Berlin playing a major role. 

Individually, each institute has limited financial resources, so instead of devoting money to new units, the idea is to pool existing infrastructure. One institute may have equipment for working on crystalline silicon, while another may have thin-film measurement tools. The goal is to share equipment, knowledge and results. It boils down to creating a kind of virtual laboratory that can leverage all the assets of the different participating laboratories. Researchers in each institute have networked into five working groups to share their data. They meet regularly under the auspices of a coordinating group.

 A Program Like Airbus for Solar PowerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... ?

These researchers work in close collaboration with European industry. All researchers want to get results, but it is hard to move from an ideal world where everything is possible to an industrial world where you have to make a profit and develop financially viable solutions.

One stellar example of French and German cooperation is the development of ultra-thin solar cell transfer technology by Fraunhofer ISE as part of the SolarBond project conducted with CEA Tech, which is now being used by French company Soitec. This cell, which is equipped with a lens, is now the core of the world’s most efficient photovoltaic system.

This is a pragmatic, practical approach based on genuine convergence. One often hears calls to build a “solar Airbus,” in other words, a European giant in the solar power industry. The idea is appealing, but backers also need to consider the future of companies already in place, which could be destabilized, and the reality of market demand, both in Europe and globally. As Andreas Rüdinger, a researcher at the Institute for Sustainable DevelopmentThis term was first defined in the Brundtland Report, published in 1987, as “development that meets the needs of the present without... and International Relations (IDDRI), put it: “Before talking about creating an energy Airbus, we first need to think about building the runway.”

Deputy Director of the French-German Office for Renewable Energy (OFAEnR), Sven Rösner is responsible for relations with OFAEnR’s partners, and represents the Office at external events such as conferences, congresses, seminars and trade fairs. Mr. Rösner was previously Marketing Manager at kiloWattsol, an independent technical advisor in the field of renewable energies. As part of his responsibilities, he has been involved in the publication of studies on the photovoltaic market in France, and has contributed to the development of several solar projects.

Portrait Arnaud Chaperon
Arnaud ChaperonSenior Vice President, Prospective Analysis, New Energies, Total

"Solar Power: The Downstream Battle is Just Beginning"

When talking about the development of photovoltaic solar energyEnergy produced by the photovoltaic effect. , people often focus solely on one of its core components: the module. Arnaud Chaperon, Senior Vice President, Prospective Analysis, Institutional Relations & Communication at Total New Energies, explains just how much the future is also linked to new uses of electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... and to the smart and sustainable management of electric powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... .

In analyzing the remarkable development of photovoltaic solar energy worldwide, it is essential to distinguish between upstream and downstream activities.

The upstream segment covers the solar cell and the photovoltaic module, while the downstream segment covers the electricity generated by the module and, more important, the way that electricity is used by consumers. The two sides are inseparable, rather like with an automobile: the engine is essential, but your car is infinitely more than that - it’s a complex system and a solution for meeting your travel needs. In solar power, the photovoltaic module is the engine. The real product is the electricity it generates, and the way you will use it in the world of tomorrow.

Technologies and the Digital Revolution

In the upstream segment, the photovoltaic boom has been powered by lower unit costs, which have followed Swanson’s law, named for Richard Swanson, founder of SunPower (costs decline by between 20% and 25% each time the installed base doubles). There is still a great deal of progress to be made in terms of technology, particularly in the semiconductor industry, and in manufacturing processes. In R&D, Europe has leading laboratories and start-ups. It is likely that technological advances will be aggregated by the world’s top 10 or 15 solar power companies, be they Chinese, European or American, because they have industrial and commercial firepower and brand names that inspire confidence in their customers and investors. Technological progress is the first lever of change.

In the downstream segment, the digital revolution is driving change in electricity markets with the convergence between the worlds of electricity and digital technology. This is the second lever needed to deploy a producer-consumer model across millions of individual sites and to manage their integration into a network that serves individual and collective interests alike. The rise of the connected world, telecoms and digital technologies creates remarkable growth prospects for new business models and new industries.

Competition among the major solar power groups will therefore focus on their ability to provide products and services. The challenge is to make your solar power system and your consumption system work together, in your home, even though they are not naturally synchronized. The sun shines when you’re at the office, but it’s at night that your need for electricity is greatest. So the solution is to set up a series of smart systems for sharing with your neighbors and your whole town.

All the components already exist to some extent, but finding ways to get them to talk to each other is still in the research or early deployment phase. We are at the dawn of this shift towards “service electricity.” We must offer commercial, residential and industrial customers integrated solutions that go beyond solar panels. The downstream battle is just beginning worldwide.

The Impact of Generation Y

Europe is well positioned in these various technologies, taken individually.  But the U.S. has a head start with its huge Internet platforms like Google, Apple and Amazon. Google’s acquisition of Nest, which manufactures household temperature control devices, was clearly aimed at giving it a foothold in managing electricity and its uses.

The last lever, and not the least in order of importance, is changing habits. In 2020, 40% of the workforce will be part of Generation Y (our children), proficient with all the latest digital tools, and above all brought up with all the things these tools make possible, including the sharing economy, the circular economy and direct B2C. Here, the strength of the crowd puts the customer center stage.

These three levers are in the process of aligning and their conjunction will unleash the full force of change.

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