02 April 2012
A theme at the Third Annual PV Power Plants EU summit was that the wide array of solar panel technologies and specifications, which are available at present, is holding back big savings in the cost of utility-scale photovoltaic installations.
Over 150 industry professionals and experts at the two-day PV Power Plants EU conference in Vienna, which closed on Friday.
The CEO of solar park constructor Belectric raised the issue on the opening day of the conference. It lead to spirited debate as he made a compelling case for module standardization. Candidly answering questions from the audience, Belectric’s Bernhard Beck (pictured above) implored: “There is so much cost to save, we – all of us here – must sit together to get this done!”
“The main picture that we see right now, is that we see modules as fuel in the same way that it is seen in automotive industry. We buy a certain fuel and we trust that fuel to last 25 years, to get us a certain ‘burn rate’ and see things the conventional power industry way.” Beck continued: “But at the moment, to talk in terms of fuel, we don’t have just diesel and gasoline, we have a thousand different fuel types! In PV industry we have maybe 10,000 different module types, this is the problem.”
Beck concluded that if there is a lack of standardization on a “fuel level” then there can’t be standardization in installation, and that this is a driver of costs.
Not all speakers agreed entirely with Beck’s argument. Photovoltaic technology researcher Anna Rosa Lagunas, from CENER in Spain, countered that different module technologies are needed to suit different climates. “Standardization of course, but we have research [into photovoltaics] that is not standard. Solar resources are different in northern Europe, central Europe, Africa etc. [We need] standardization up to a certain level, but we still need different technologies for different regions,” argued Lagunas.
Both Lagunas and Beck agreed on the need to develop technologies and approaches that will assist in delivering photovoltaic-generated electricity to the grid and to utility companies. Beck introduced technologies that can stabilize grid voltage from PV Power plants currently being developed by Belectric, which he argued is a key element with the potential to address utility companies’ fears as to solar power’s grid integration.
“We see a movement from the larger utilities towards photovoltaics, on a larger scale. Just two or three years back, they would say ‘solar is too expensive’, they wouldn’t even talk to us,” said Beck. “Utilities can’t do offshore wind because they can’t get it into the grid and down to Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg [in Germany’s electricity-hungry and prosperous south] without a lot of cost and a lot of stress.
“So if we can solve the problem in a decentralized way, through voltage stability for example, we increase the amount of transferable energy through Germany. That means directly, a solar power plant with stabilizing grid voltage allows more offshore wind in the same grid. So we are the enablers of offshore wind into the southern part of Germany.
“We need to get everybody, utilities, grid providers and renewable energy into one boat, to get this game done. That is the end point,” concluded Beck.
Also addressing the issue of research and development (R&D) in photovoltaics, US-based market analyst Paula Mints asked the question in her presentation, whether the industry can “sustain itself” - when module prices are falling so rapidly. While module price reductions, which were in the order of 45% on average throughout 2011, are revolutionizing the industry and making solar power competitive with conventional power sources, Mints added that in such an environment firms are unable to carry out vital R&D.
Mints explained the market machinations underpinning this effect in a response to a question towards the end of one of the sessions: “Prices are held down now by very high levels of inventory, very high levels of capacity, reduced incentives. The rumours of extremely low prices - that is really the reselling of inventory - and that is held down by manufacturers that are selling it below cost.” In this environment, Mints continued that, “manufacturers are going to fail” and R&D programs will stall. “Companies don’t have the money to make improvements on efficiency and truly reduce manufacturing costs.”