by D.A. Barber
Concentrated Photovoltaic (CPV) technology is proving to be less costly than current flat panel and thin film PVs due to their high efficiency design. In fact, in April 2011 San Jose, California-based Solar Junction recorded a world-record efficiency of 43.5 percent for their newest CPV cells, as verified by the U.S. National Energy Research Laboratory. Current development endeavors are expected to achieve an efficiency exceeding 50 percent. And with the addition of two-axis tracking devices, CPV systems can increase annual energy production up to 30 percent, compared to standard non-tracking PV methods.
According to recent reports, the CPV market is expected to experience sweeping growth in the next three years in regions intense solar radiation with high direct normal irradiance (DNI) or a high cost of grid electricity, particularly in the Southwest US, Mexico, Chile, Southern Peru, Southwest Bolivia, Northwest Argentina, the Mediterranean countries, Australia, North Africa, Australia, the Middle East, Western India, and Western China. While CPV projects are currently concentrated in Spain, Germany, and the southwest U.S., the current government support for CPV technologies in India, Australia, Japan, and China - the fastest growing country in the Asian CPV market - are expected to drive future growth.
CPV technology utilizes optical lenses to precisely focus and concentrate direct sunlight onto a set of PV cells mounted on trackers to follow the position of the Sun. The PV cells used are usually multi-junction “III-V” PV cells, which were originally developed by NASA and have higher energy conversion efficiency than the highest-efficiency silicon PV cells. The focused energy is expressed as a multiplication of the power of the sun and referred to as “suns,” with “1 sun” equal to the power of solar incidence at noon on a clear day.
The current CPV market is classified into three technology types: Low Concentration Photovoltaic (LCPV), Medium Concentration Photovoltaic (MCPV), and High Concentration Photovoltaic (HCPV). LCPVs can reach a level of less than ten suns; MCPVs between 10 and 100 suns; and HCPVs between 100 and 1000 suns. It’s the HCPVs which hold the largest share of global CPV market and are expected to achieve grid parity the fastest.
A flurry of recent CPV industry reports have all basically concurred with a September 2011 EnergyTrend estimate of at least 1GW of new CPV installations will be in place by 2015.
The June 2011 “European Photovoltaic Industry Association's Global Outlook for Photovoltaics Until 2015” report states that PV installation capacity grew by 15GW in 2010 with CPV accounting for about 20MW. At the end of 2010, CPVs made up 28MW of the total 40GW of PV capacity installed worldwide. EPIA has also predicted CPV installation would be at least 1GW annually by 2015.
According to PV Insider, organizer of the 3rd Concentrated Photovoltaic Summit USA 2011 held in November 2011, the CPV industry currently has a pipeline of around 700MW of projects either planned or in operation.
As far back as November 2009, the “Concentrated Photovoltaic and Solar Photovoltaic Global Markets (2009 - 2014)” report published by Delaware-based Markets and Markets estimated that the total CPV market would be worth $266 million by 2014 - up from about $63.9 million in 2009 and a CAGR of 33 percent from 2009 to 2014. According to that report, Europe is expected to command a market share of 59.3 percent, followed by the Americas with 32 percent of the global CPV market.
Some reports now forecast an expected growth to 12.5GW of installed CPV capacity by 2020.
Major CPV Players
In the U.S., the major CPV players are SolFocus, Amonix, EMCORE, and Skyline Solar. European companies pursuing CPV projects include Concentrix, Abengoa Solar and ArimaEco. The current global CPV pipeline is 95 percent dominated by the Big 3 manufacturers: Concentrix Solar, Amonix, and SolFocus. Other solar developers and independent power producers that have partnered with these CPV companies to develop utility-scale power plants in the United States include Tenaska Solar, Cogentrix Energy, and Sol Orchard.
The Big 3 companies – California-based Amonix, Concentrix Solar (a division of French-based micro-chip manufacturer Soitec), and California-based SolFocus - are actively overcoming CPV’s image of a “lack of bankability” by developing strategic affiliations with financial and R&D giants, including Goldman Sachs, Johnson Controls, IBM, and UC Berkeley. One development that has signaled a change in how CPV ‘s profitability potential is perceived by investors happened in the summer of 2011 when Diamond Generating Corporation, Competitive Power Ventures, Inc., and GE Energy Financial Services closed on a $900 million deal to build the largest CPV power plant in the world: The 800MW Sentinel CPV plant located in Riverside, California and scheduled to go online in 2013.
In October 2011, French company Soitec introduced its fifth generation CPV system specifically designed for utility-scale power plants. Soitec's "Concentrix" technology includes a 28kW tracker with over 100 square-meters of module area designed to improve the Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCoE) and boost energy efficiencies to as high as 30 percent. Soitec plans to ramp-up production during the quarter of 2012 at its Freiburg, Germany, manufacturing facility and at its new factory in San Diego, California.
In November 2011, Soitec also received the OK to develop 155MW of CPV after signing five power purchase agreements with San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E). That same month, the company also began fulfilling its first Concentrix CPV order to China’s Focusic New Energy Holding Co. for a 3MW CPV power plant in the Taklamakan desert city of Hami, in the Xinjiang province.
In June 2011, German engineering giant Siemens acquired a 16 percent share in U.S.-based Semprius allowing the HCPV module manufacturer to scale-up to production levels in 2012. In January 2012, Semprius recorded an efficiency of 33.9 percent on one of its HCPV modules, as verified by the Instituto de Energia Solar (IES) at the University of Madrid. Semprius modules have already been used in a test project in Arizona since August 2010.
The large majority of CPV projects under development are currently in the U.S., with a handful in Spain, as well as Portugal, Greece and Australia. In 2010, Spain – where most of the country experiences high DNI - dominated the global CPV market with around 16MW of cumulative installed capacity accounting for roughly 70 percent of the installed global CPV. The southwest U.S. follows Spain with an installed capacity of around 4.5MW, accounting for 20 percent of the global CPV capacity. Greece and Australia also have a high DNI and account for approximately 5 percent and 3 percent of the global CPV installed capacity respectively. Currently, about 345 out of 358MW of CPV either in operation or with power purchase agreements involve the Big 3 manufacturers.
Picture courtesy: Concentrix Solar
In October 2011, NextEra Energy Resources, the energy subsidiary of NextEra Energy, Inc., announced the commissioning of the Hatch Solar Center, located in Hatch, New Mexico. The 5MW facility, which sells its power to El Paso Electric under a 25-year power purchase agreement, is comprised of 84 dual-axis tracking Amonix 60kW units and is currently the largest operating CPV power plant in North America.
In March 2011, CSOLAR Development, managed by U.S.-based Tenaska Solar Ventures, signed a 25-year contract with San Diego Gas and Electric to produce 150MW in southern California. As part of the deal, the Imperial Solar Energy Center will be constructed on a 1,057-acre site in California’s Imperial County. The facility will use German-based Concentrix Solar’s (a division of French-based micro-chip manufacturer Soitec) CPV technology, which will be supplied by their new 200MW capacity factory in the San Diego. Other CPV projects located in California include the 1MW Solfocus project and the 2MW Greenvolt project.
In Europe, the 7.8MW Guascor Foton’s Navarre power plant and 2MW Murcia power plant are the largest CPV plants located in Spain.
Skyline Solar X14 array
In March 2011, California-based Skyline Solar introduced their Skyline X14 system and announced that it had been selected by Mexico’s DelSol Systems for a 500kW CPV plant to be built in Durango, Mexico. When finished it will be the largest CPV plant in Latin America. In December 2011, Skyline also signed a $1.85 million, 3-year contract with the U.S. Department of Defense and has broken ground on CPV power plants at two U.S. military sites.
Future of CPV
CPV has high efficiency rates and energy yields (which are predicted to rise even higher) as well as lower system costs than traditional PV farms. CPV also requires less land and no water in their operation compared to Concentrated Solar Power (CSP). A July 2011 report, released by the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at UC Berkeley and commissioned by the CPV Consortium, looked at the CPV technology from inception to retirement, taking all aspects of the life cycle into consideration. The report concludes that CPV costs are kept lower because they use fewer solar cells, less expensive raw materials, and require only 6 to 8 acres of land for each megawatt of tracking CPV modules installed, freeing up more land for dual uses such as grazing livestock or growing crops.
The established 43.5 percent benchmark efficiency established earlier this year puts CPV years ahead of both PV and CSP. In fact, the recent reports that have estimated at least 1GW of new installations will be in place by 2015 may be a gross underestimate as a result of recent efficiency advances.
Countries such as, Italy, China, Australia, India, and South Korea are emerging as markets in the CPV industry. Italy’s CPV feed-in-tariff and China’s low-cost production and high DNI in the western regions are attracting CPV investors to both these countries.
But to further expand, the CPV industry must advance to overcome its usefulness in only high DNI regions and expand into other locations. A recent National Research Energy Laboratory report cites research that demonstrates the feasibility of installing CPV technology in lower DNI areas such as Boston, Massachusetts, which has a DNI of 3.58 kWh/m2/day.
By all reports, the CPV market is expanding rapidly. Those companies that have successfully completed CPV prototype projects and are ready to expand into utility-scale power plants will help expand acceptance of CPV technology and break the ice for larger investment opportunities for the entire industry. This includes an increase in global demand for diverse CPV system components, such as trackers, inverters, multi-junction cells, and high-tech optics.
As more governments initiate support for solar in the form of FITs, loan guarantees, grants, and funding through solar initiative programs, CPV should continue to rise toward becoming the preferred technology for utility-scale solar power plants.