French-California connection sees solar through new lens

Franco-American joint venture will magnify sunlight before it hits a photovoltaic panel, intensifying energy and saving rooftop space and land. It's the latest development in solar's 'third way'.

A French solar company has teamed with a Connecticut optical specialist to make solar panels that magnify sunlight before converting it to electricity, intensifying the energy and saving precious rooftop space and land.

The joint venture between Soitec Group, Bernin, France, and Avon, Conn.-based Reflexite Energy Solutions Inc. marks the latest twist in “concentrated photovoltaics” (CPV) .

CPV is a third way of producing solar electricity. It borrows from conventional PV in that it uses solar cells embedded in panels to generate electricity. It also mimics solar thermal electricity by concentrating sunlight – solar thermal uses mirrors to focus sunlight onto a fluid that heats up and drives a turbine. In CPV, mirrors or lenses magnify light onto a solar cell.

The companies call the joint venture Reflexite Optical Technologies Inc. It will build solar panels in San Diego, employing about 100 people.

Soitec earlier this month won approval from the California Public Utilities Commission to provide 155 megawatts of power from 5 different facilities to San Diego Gas and Electric.

Soitec said in a press release that the new panels will advance the company’s existing CPV solar panels, which use “silicone-on-glass Fresnel lens plates.” The joint venture will “co-develop next-generation technologies that will continue to increase the efficiencies and lower the costs” of those plates, the press release stated.

Soitec, a solar and materials company, entered the CPV business with its acquisition two years ago of German manufacturer Concentrix Solar GmbH. Its existing products amplify sunlight by over 500 times. CPV magnification from other vendors range from a factor of 3X to about 1200X, in a series of trade-offs between cost, magnification and efficiency. By intensifying the the energy-in, CPV can reduce the number of panels and the real estate required to generate solar electricity.

What’s not clear is how CPV will fare in a market in which the price of conventional solar panels is plunging .

The rapid price decline would presumably make it more difficult for CPV to compete. CPV costs are typically higher than conventional PV because they involve mirrors, lenses or other concentrating elements. They also tend to require “triple junction” solar cells that are more expensive than conventional solar cells, although one CPV company, Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Hypersolar, has developed a CPV panel that uses standard cells.

The price decline has caused s ome utility-scale projects to switch from solar thermal to PV, such as at  California's massive Blythe installation. The chairman of Spanish utility giant recently railed against solar thermal costs .

In addition to Soitec and Hypersolar, other CPV companies include Amonix Inc., REhnu, SolFocus Inc., Solaria Corp., Skyline Solar, and SunPower Corp.


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