I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with PowerFilm CEO Frank Jeffrey. We discussed solar trends, how things have changed since he began working in the solar field, and everything in between.
When did you first get involved in solar?
I’ve been involved in solar since the mid-1970s
What about solar intrigued you and made you want to get involved?
Solar is interesting, but the specific technology I was working on intrigued me, and solar was one of the significant applications.
What technology intrigued you?
Amorphous silicon. It was a whole new way of looking at semiconductors. It was a new material that was quite different than the classical physics way of looking at the material. There was a wide-open opportunity to develop a new understanding of entirely new material.
How long had amorphous silicon been around?
It was first fabricated in the late 1960s, but it took about ten years to understand the material's fundamental parts and why it was doing what it was. It was a matter of significant argument, research, and a fascinating time developing the physics that went with this new material.
Was there a lot of contention and debate over amorphous silicon in the early years?
Absolutely. There were debates over the very nature of the substance. What is this? The understanding and evolution of that understanding mirrored the understanding of crystalline silicon. It was like reaching a whole new continent for the first time. There are similarities to crystalline, they’re on the same planet, but it’s a whole different world.
Amorphous silicon was also special because it could be commercial and profitable. It could be used for solar purposes and also in liquid crystal displays.
Another intriguing part of this technology that made it attractive was the solar application.
As a field of study, amorphous silicon was the best of all worlds. It was fascinating new material, had commercial applications, and could provide social benefits.
How much solar do you think would be required to power the United States?
An easy way to explain it would be that the United States roads could power the country if converted into solar. This is also a lesson in just how many miles of road there are in the US.
Is there technology in the more infant stages that could become a contender in this marketplace?
The HIT Cell is a variant of crystalline. Not a new product but a variant.
What is the biggest difference in the solar community today instead of when you first entered the solar arena?
In the United States, what people describe as the solar community is different. When I started, the community focused on semiconductor technology and solar manufacturing.
Solar today doesn’t mean the same thing that it meant in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, solar production was mostly based in the U.S. and Germany. Now, solar in the United States is mostly imported. What was in the United States is now in China.
The solar industry in the United States is now installation based. When they say the solar industry is growing, they mean the installation of imported solar.
What caused the shift from developing solar technology to importing from elsewhere?
The initial development was between the U.S. and Europe back and forth. The goal was to develop the technology and keep costs down so it could be widely applied.
In the early 2000s, China decided to “own” solar. They decided that solar was going to be theirs. They wanted to control the manufacturing of the panels.
China had reasons to pursue solar, including profit, environmental benefits and energy. They looked at the entire supply chain from mining raw silicon sources, growing or casting ingots, cutting into wafers, making them into solar cells, and framing and encapsulating them.
They achieved a total cost/watt that was considered unattainable by most people in the U.S. They invested in the system.
What is the biggest challenge facing solar companies today, and what is the biggest challenge for US-based solar companies?
It depends on what you call a solar company. If you mean a company that manufactures solar, there are very few outside Asia. Some U.S. companies with spectacular technologies have somewhat protected themselves by moving the production of their product to Asia.
There’s big solar, and there’s small solar. We are small solar in a specialized, low-volume niche.
China still very heavily subsidizes its solar industry. They subsidize their industry and exports. The U.S. subsidizes installation. In essence, the Chinese companies get subsidized twice; once by China for manufacturing and once by the U.S. for installation.
What are your thoughts on the incredible growth of solar?
I am thrilled to see the large and growing installation base of solar. It couldn’t have happened any other way. We couldn’t have gotten to this stage, but the Chinese decided they would take over and do this.
What is on the horizon for solar? What piques your interest?
Amazingly, the advances continue. There have been times through the advancements in solar that people thought the technology was mature.
Due to the economy of scale, new technologies will have a challenging time making it in the solar market because their costs will be too high. They’ll be blocked from the market. They’ll go out of business.
You’re saying that better technology could emerge, but due to lack of backing, it could run out of the market even if they have a wonderful product?
It definitely, happens all the time. Technological improvement has to change the whole landscape to overcome something entrenched and has an economy of scale.
Do you see the potential of this “solar boom” leveling off?
Due to the massive number of subsidies, it is hard to predict. When those financial benefits are no longer dominant, you might see a decline.
Germany was the leader in solar adoption because it had huge subsidies. Now, not much installation is happening there.
What are your thoughts on Tesla’s Powerwall?
Tesla’s Powerwall is probably the most important change in implementing solar energy that has ever occurred.
It is an absolute watershed moment. Similar to how Tesla’s car changed the automobile industry. The Powerwall will change the solar industry.
Have there been other battery methods for storing energy homeowner’s solar panels generate?
The standard system before the Powerwall was these massive banks of lead-acid batteries. They have a limited life cycle and also are extremely heavy.
Lead-acid has been the best battery storage mechanism for one hundred years, but lithium batteries have been slowly evolving. With the push from Tesla, the batteries were pushed past a threshold of making sense.
When I first saw the price of the Powerwall, I was quite impressed. What was your reaction?
I was astounded to see the price of these battery banks. That’s a price the world can live with.
I could see battery banks like that implemented in Iowa to match wind power. We don’t have the best sunlight year-round, but wind, we do have wind.
The Powerwall took people from saying, “this can’t be used widespread.” to “Oh yeah, it could work.”
What I found to be most intriguing about our time together was Jeffrey’s response to the Powerwall. Having been in the solar community for over thirty years, Jeffrey understands just how monumental Tesla’s move was and what it will mean to the future of renewable energy.
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