NanoMarkets Blog
Better Times Ahead for Selling Transparent Conductors into the PV Space?
Published: October 10, 2013 Category: Advanced Materials Renewable Energy

The future for TCs in the solar-panel sector depends heavily on the future of the PV industry generally and of the thin-film PV (TFPV) sector in particular.  TFPV is especially important because it makes use of a disproportionate amount of transparent conductor.   So a swing back to using crystalline silicon panels would be bad news for the TC sector.

TC firms—as far as we can tell—have never seen the solar sector as one of the most attractive opportunities, primarily because it is much more cost sensitive than the display sector and always will be.  Also the largest share of the solar panel industry—CSi panels—has minimal needs for TCs.  However, TC firms were attracted to this sector by the fact that (1) it was growing very fast and (2) wasn’t stuck on ITO; indeed it had largely abandoned it. 

The state of the PV sector:  Most of the positive assessments that the TC sector made for solar seem to have been shattered recently; the solar panel industry has gone through major ups and downs in the past few years.  After a few years of boom, the industry succumbed to a bout of major price cutting begun as the result of Chinese industrial policy, which in the end hurt Chinese firms too.  However, according to most accounts the PV sector is on the mend, although growth in this sector will probably be in the (high) single digits for the next few years.  So this is good news for the TC industry in a generalized sort of way. 

We also expect that supply and demand in the PV sector to become more balanced in the next couple of years, so TC firms may not be under such extreme price pressures when they sell into this market in the future.  That said, NanoMarkets believes that there are some other factors that should make transparent conductor makers somewhat cautious in this space.

First, conventional CSi panels (which don’t present much opportunity for TC makers) are soon expected to hit the 35 cents per watt level.  Just a few years back, they were $4 per watt and nobody thought they could go below $1 per watt.  This is a hard price point for TC-using PV technologies to compete with.  Second, NanoMarkets expects to see a higher proportion of PV go into utility-scale PV, which has also mostly used CSi, although CdTe PV is also important. 

Remaining opportunities for TCs: Given all this, NanoMarkets believes that the best that the TC firms can hope for is a niche market that embraces what is left of the TFPV and organic/DSC PV sectors.  While firms have been quitting these sectors in droves, most of these newer technologies have shown steady improvements in efficiencies in the past few years.  This means that they can now come somewhere close to CSi in terms of efficiency.
What some of the newer PV technologies do have to support them in is the fact that they are flexible and therefore suitable for use in BIPV, camping products, solar chargers and a number of other areas, where CSi really can’t compete. The possibility for coating PV material directly onto a substrate is also expected to have its appeal.

All of these product areas have some potential for growth and the BIPV opportunity might actually be of reasonable size.  But we aren’t expecting transparent conductor firms to see huge amounts of money coming out of the PV sector for the foreseeable future. For us, the fact that Nanosolar—which started the whole fashion for printed CIGS PV—has recently announced that it is switching to silicon panels is very much a sign of the times.

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