28 June 2010
If I had to describe Spain in one word it would be “sunny.” A sunny country that can greatly benefit from inexhaustible solar energy. The photovoltaic (PV) industry has existed in Spain since 1970s, however, most PV produced in Spain was exported to other European countries.
“Changes in the FiT regulation will affect all the renewable energies, but they will likely affect the PV sector most significantly.”
A few golden years came to Spain between 2007 and 2008, with the approval of the RD 661/07 (royal decree), and attractive feed-in tariffs (FiTs), which resulted in a sharp growth in the photovoltaic sector. The objective was to achieve 371MW by the end of 2010. Paradoxically, that objective was overcome just after 3 months of the publication of the RD. Investors coming from other sectors, like construction or banking, were tempted by the attractive profits. A race was set in motion to get the tariff on time, with a result of a total amount of 2511 MW installed by the end of 2008.
In the short term, this sharp growth had positive effects, with thousands of jobs created. The huge demand in such a short time motivated changes around the world, increasing manufacturing capabilities of all the suppliers throughout the supply chain to meet demand. In the same way, the national demand promoted the development of the Spanish PV industry, creating a number of new companies, in all steps of the supply chain.
Change in government support
But the brilliant future of the Spanish PV industry was truncated by further decisions made by the Spanish government. The greater than expected number of PV installations cost the government millions of Euros. Aiming to stabilize the long-term situation, a new decree (RD 1578/08) decreased the feed in tariffs by 29%. It also limited the amount installed by imposing quotas, and introduced differences between roof and ground PV installations (with better conditions for the former). The result was a slowing of the industry and drastic job losses. Further decrees and regulations at the planning stage by the Ministry of Industry aim to decrease the 2600 M€ that the PV installations costs public bodies. At this moment, those in the PV industry together with other renewable energies associations are in tense negotiations with the government, trying to find an agreement on these new regulations.
In principle the regulation will affect all the renewable energies, but they will likely affect the PV sector most significantly. Day to day, new messages from the ministry are spreading panic throughout the PV sector, with the ghost of the threat of retroactive decrease of a 30% of FiTs. Obviously all the PV sector opposes these proposals vigorously. However, at this time the measure has not been approved and, according to declarations of the Ministry, will not be applied if they affect to the viability of the existing installations.
Fortunately, with new governmental ruling on the horizon as well as cheaper/more efficient PV power, the PV industry has much to look forward to. On the one hand, a recent European Directive 2009/28/CE sets a goal of having 20% of the electrical generation based on renewable energies in Spain by 2020.
“If we take into account the cost of emissions of the CO2 of conventional electricity suppliers, grid parity could even happen around 2011.”
On the other hand, several studies from Spain and beyond indicate that energy from the sun will soon be cost effective and will not need the co-financing offered by FiTs. Specifically, it is expected that by the middle of this decade, PV energy will reach grid parity, defined as the point at which renewable electricity will be equal or cheaper than the grid power. From that moment, energy from the sun will be profitable by itself without help of FiTs.
Grid parity is being calculated assuming a progressive increase of the grid power price and a decrease in the cost of the PV energy. If we take into account the cost of emissions of the CO2 of conventional electricity suppliers, that could happen around 2011, as outlined in a study requested by the Spanish PV association AEF (Asociación Empresas Fotovoltaicas).
The role of PV technology
Thus, PV technology now plays a crucial role, first of all to reach the expected reduction in prices and secondly to achieve grid parity as soon as possible.
Development of the technology, and therefore of R&D efforts, is focused in two directions: minimizing costs of manufacturing and maximizing efficiency of the PV devices with novel concepts.
While industry efforts are focused on lowering the cost of manufacturing by using thinner cells and integrating processes through the value chain, low cost technologies, such as thin-film technologies, are gaining importance and market share with respect to the standard crystalline technologies. As an example, a Spanish project, ATON, was approved last year to improve thin-film technologies with participation of 12 companies and 14 Research centers in total.
However, the objective of maximizing efficiencies comes hand in hand with the R&D activities, developing or improving the existing PV technologies. Spain has some of the most important R&D centers in Europe with more than 20 years experience in this field. The Solar Energy Institute in the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid (IES/UPM), Ciemat or the two Catalan Universities Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya (UPC) and Universitat Barcelona (UB) have research lines that are aiming to improve cell efficiencies by using new concepts, for example the intermediate bandgap concept introduced by IES.
The methodologies used tend to apply developments that have been applied in other technological fields, such as photonics or microelectronics. It implies a multidisciplinary research, incorporating expertise in different fields to accomplish the common objective of improving efficiency of the solar cells. New players in photovoltaic research are bringing fresh and new ideas to the scientific community, exploiting the expertise in related fields. An example of this is the Nanophotonics Technology center (NTC) of the Polytechnic University of Valencia.
The Lima Project, coordinated by NTC, is a good example of this multidisciplinary approach. In this project, experts in the fields of photovoltaics and NanoPhotonics are working together with the PV Industry towards the objective of developing new photovoltaic devices which incorporate two elements that are being applied in the nanophotonics like plasmonics and quantum dots. The objective of this project is to increase the efficiency of silicon crystalline solar cells by 10% using novel third- generation concepts.
For further reading
Dr. James Connolly, a photovoltaic senior research scientist of the Nanophotonics Technology Center (NTC), provides further information on the Spanish photovoltaics industry in the Solar Novus Today article "The LIMA Project: Nanoscaled Photovoltaics in Spain".
About the Author
Esther Pérez is currently Photovoltaic R&D Project Manager for the Nanophotonics Technology Center at the Polytechnic University of Valencia. With a background in Chemical Engineering, she was previously Process Engineer and Quality Manager of Atersa, a PV manufacturer.