French semiconductor manufacturer Soitec reported today that the company's concentrated photovoltaic, or CPV, system in Jordan reached daily peaks of 25 percent efficiency, "two to three times higher than standard photovoltaic installations" over the summer and fall. Soitec acquired 80 percent of Concentrix Solar, a CPV supplier, about a year ago.
In October, Mountain View, Calif.-based SolFocus Inc. announced plans it was teaming with Vision Electro Mechanical Co. to build a 300-megawatt CPV installation in Saudi Arabia's Bahra region.
Concentrated solar squeezes more electricity out of the sun's rays than conventional panels, using advanced optics to concentrate the sun's rays onto solar cells. It's come a long way since I wrote about a San Jose start-up attempting the same thing on an Alaska project back in the late 1980s.
Conventional solar panels without optics come in three varieties: thin film, polycrystalline and monocrystalline, with the latter generally the most efficient and thin film on the tail end. However, the efficiency rating of the best doesn't quite reach 15 percent, according a comparison by sroeco.com.
Efficiencies in the lab report big gains in various technologies but lag in commercial application. And that's what makes the implications of Soitec and SolFocus projects so interesting.
The big divide between renewable energy and that derived from fossil fuels is cost per kilowatt. Until recently, solar, wind and other renewable sources came with a premium that only government rebates, subsidies or feed-in tariffs made palatable to developers. However, efficiencies, technological changes and fossil fuel price increases are bringing parity within reach.
Should solar become competitive on a cost-per-kilowat basis, more people will be interested in adding the technology.
Hansjorg Lerchenmuller, a senior vice president at Soitec, said his company's CPV technology has proven itself with "very high performance even under very high temperatures. ... We are ready for high-volume deployment."
SolFocus CEO Mark Crowley dubbed CPV "the world's most efficient and resource-friendly solar technology," while in the same statement Hassan Chahine, Vision Electro general manager, said he believes the Bahra plant "will serve as a model for the further research and study of clean water and power solutions that diversify the region's energy mix."
No dollar figures were disclosed, but investment will be substantial. Many others will be watching and evaluating, eager to learn if either gamble pays off.
Photo: SolFocus concentrated solar panels.