Putting Europe back in the lead in solar panel production
A large fraction of all solar panels manufactured in the world contain technology developed in the Netherlands, in particular by TNO. But the vast majority of them come from Chinese factories. Time to bring manufacturing back to our continent. And not the familiar dark blue standard panels, but modules that can be invisibly integrated into, for example, buildings and infrastructure and are also highly efficient. Lightweight modules, whether flexible or not, offer even more possibilities for integration. Plenty of opportunities for the Dutch manufacturing industry!
Strategic value chain
The European Commission has identified the solar energy sector as a strategic value chain. Producing close to home avoids shipping of solar panels across oceans, which reduces pollution and transport costs. The energy mix in Europe is also cleaner than in many other regions of the world, which further improves the already small carbon footprint of solar panels. It also makes us less dependent on specific countries or regions. Moreover, we have everything here: high-level knowledge, innovative strength in innovation, and cutting-edge companies, which will enable us to become a major player again in the production of solar cells and modules.
Staying ahead of the curve
The Netherlands has long been a leading developer of innovative technologies in the field of solar energy. We’ve pioneered technology developments and applications of crystalline silicon photovoltaics and in recent years also in the field of thin-film and tandems: a stack of solar cells to increase yields.
TNO has unique lab facilities to develop and test deposition technologies such as atomic layer and pulsed laser deposition (ALD and PLD), as well as low-pressure and higher temperature chemical deposition (PECVD and LPCVD). These technologies enable ultra-thin functional layers to be applied to cells to optimise performance. Layers are being developed for higher conversion efficiency, but also for protection to improve reliability. In this way, we support companies in the manufacturing industry to develop and manufacture innovative products, to improve existing products or processes, and to enter new markets.
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New generations of solar cells and modules
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Crystalline silicon solar cells have dominated the conversion of sunlight into electrical energy for many decades. The global market share of photovoltaic (PV) modules equipped with these cells is more than 95 per cent. They offer high efficiency and are relatively cheap. However, there is still much to be gained by improving performance, reducing costs and minimising environmental impact.
From importer to exporter
A new generation of solar modules, to which TNO is currently making major contributions, will make the difference in the next decade. Simple, low-cost fixed panels will make way for new types of solar panels that are almost or entirely invisible and can be incorporated in all kinds of materials in any desired size and shape, making them easy to integrate into roofs, façades, windows, roads, noise barriers, and even cars. There will then potentially be a lot more surface area available for generating energy.
Mass customization – mass production of tailor-made products – is the future of integrated solar power. Creating a PV ecosystem to manufacture these high-end products in Europe, with the Netherlands as an important supplier of knowledge, equipment, and semi-finished products, but also of the final products, will make it possible to tap a broad market. From being an importer to having opportunities for exporting.
At the same time, the Netherlands and Europe need to optimise the performance of solar cells and modules. TNO is strongly committed to the combination (a stack) of thin-film perovskite and crystalline silicon, called a tandem solar cell. We continually succeed in pushing the boundaries and increasing the maximum power output. In the near future, tandem solar cells will achieve efficiencies in excess of 30%. In addition to tandems of perovskite combined with silicon cells, it’s also possible to make tandems of perovskite solar cells. The individual perovskite solar cells then differ in composition and therefore in colour sensitivity. This enables a better use of the energy from the solar spectrum.
In the long term (beyond 2040), tandems comprising stacks of multiple perovskite cells will enable conversion efficiencies beyond 40%. We’re currently working with Dutch universities and companies on new generations of tandem solar cells, both a stack of two cells and a stack of multiple cells. All kinds of new functional thin layers are being developed to further optimise performance.
Cross-border collaboration needed
Besides obtaining high efficiencies a lot more is needed to enable large-scale manufacturing of solar cells and modules in Europe, with a strong Dutch contribution. Production costs must be reduced even further, the concept of mass customisation for integration must become a reality, and circularity will be crucial. Achieving these ambitions requires cross-border collaboration between knowledge institutions, companies, and governments.
The first steps have already been taken with the launch of the European Solar Initiative, supported by the European Commission. The motto is ‘accelerate and scale up’ and bring back manufacturing to Europe. Companies in various European countries are already expanding production of solar cells and solar panels, and new companies are starting up production.
Smart combinations of solar cells and recycling
Large-scale manufacturing of cells and modules in the Netherlands is possible. The country already has significant production of modules! Our strength lies in creating innovative concepts that companies can further industrialise and then market. TNO has a unique knowledge position as regards combining solar cells into a solar panel in any desired shape, size, or colour and incorporating it into construction elements.
Together with industrial partners, we‘re developing a concept for solar panels in which all components can ultimately be recycled. In the EU alone, currently around 4,000 tonnes of solar panels are not completely recycled annually. We’ll solve this problem with fully recyclable solar panels. In short, we as a country can contribute a lot to creating a flourishing solar energy industry in Europe.
Arthur WeeberFunctie:Professor Applied Silicon Photovoltaics
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The Solar energy expertise group develops technology for solar panels, including bifacial solar modules and silicon solar cell technology.