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New Solar Panel Material Could Make SolarCity’s Gigafactory Hyper Efficient

Researchers have identified perovskite as a possible game-changer in solar panel production. Let's take a look at what it could mean for a solar plant that intends to yield a gigawatt of solar panels per year.

A Breakthrough in Solar Cell Science

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Energy issued a press release to announce new findings for the next generation of solar panels. A typical solar panel you see today uses the sun's radiation (sunlight), which contains infrared (IR) to ultraviolet rays (UV), by converting it into usable electricity. It accomplishes this by using the amazing chemical properties of silicon crystals.
However, researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory have been researching a new material called perovskite, a material that is showing signs for future success.


Perovskite as found in nature. Photo by Andrew Silver courtesy of the USGS

Perovskite has the potential to reduce the cost of solar panels while increasing their efficiency. The scientists at LANL are currently working on finding a way to on adjust the properties of the perovskite material to maximize the amount of time it can absorb sunlight—and they might have just done so.
Several publications have noted that organo-metal halide perovskites are developing extraordinarily quickly in research. In short, it has high potential to revolutionize solar cell production.

Case Study: The SolarCity Gigafactory

So what does this mean for SolarCity? As the Gigafactory is nearing its completion (built as well as paid for by the state of New York), production of panels will soon follow. If the scientists of LANL can maximize the perovskite's light-absorbing capabilities, SolarCity might be able to utilize this breakthrough to produce 10,000 panels a day at a lower cost and higher efficiency.


Perovskite structure. Image courtesy of Nature.

The efficiency of a solar cell is the amount of energy (in the form of sunlight) that can be fully converted into electricity in a photovoltaic system is used. The photovoltaic system, or PV system, is a power system used to capture energy and distribute it. A PV system, in conjunction with climate and latitude, governs the system's annual energy output. For example, if a solar panel is 25% efficient on a surface area of 1m2, that panel will be able to produce 250 Watts with standard conditions mentioned above.
However, this isn't a limit for the panel—as the sun reaches its highest point in the sky (or fewer clouds appear in the sky), the panel can produce almost double this amount!


The SolarCity site. Image courtesy of ComputerWorld.

As of right now, SolarCity's panels' cost per watt (unit of power) is about $2.84, which is down 60% since 2012.
If the perovskite material proves to be more efficient than traditional silicon-based panels, SolarCity might be able to lower costs even more.
In 2014, SolarCity acquired Silevo for $350 million in agreement to build the 1 GigaWatt solar panel production plant. Silevo produces low-cost, high-output solar cells, which is just what SolarCity needs to help minimize solar power pricing.
With its addition of Silevo, SolarCity announced in October of 2015 that they have built the most efficient rooftop solar panel; the panel has a module that generates 22% more power per square foot than any other rooftop solar panel in production. For reference, average efficiencies range from 16% and 18% for silicon-based panels.
Once the Gigafactory is up and running, they expect 10,000 solar panels to be produced every day. With this large-scale production, prices for solar technologies could drop, making them more practical than coal or fracking gas. This will give homeowners the opportunity to find an affordable and eco-friendly source of electricity.

With this additional, increased efficiency offered by perovskite, we could see this future come to pass sooner than expected.

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