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This year, the Photovoltaics Specialists Conference was held in Tampa.  In the middle of June in Florida, you could really feel the sun.  It was hot.  The temperature accounting for humidity was easily into the 40’s each day.   And this was awesome for me, since I almost feel perpetually cold in Ottawa.  An ultra-hot day feels like a blessing so I didn’t mind it at all. We conveniently stayed right across the street from the Tampa Convention Centre, which was also conveniently connected to our hotel with a bridge.  All it took was a quick 30 seconds in the heat and it was back to the frigidity of an air conditioned building.

Picture for Ross' blog

 

The actual conference was much more along the interests of the students in the network.  And you could tell.  Students were picking out their sessions as soon as they got their hands on a physical copy of the conference schedule.  I was amazed by the sheer volume of talks and posters at the conference.  It seems as though each of these presenters had a unique research topic as well.  I was completely unaware of the breadth of the research activity in the field of solar energy.  Practically any strategy you could think of had a researcher working on exactly that.

The organization of the conference was also equally impressive.  Talks were kept on time.  The seating was great.  Even the coffee was in adequate supply!  The conference centre itself was a great venue too.  There was enough space for everyone to roam about freely (and then some!).

The PVIN booth was manned as usual by quite a few students at a time.  It seems being at the booth allowed you to interact with more people (it also helped being close to the coffee). While at the booth, it was nice to meet other researchers, industry professionals and manufacturers of solar products and characterization tools as well.  Being a research-oriented conference, it really felt like the place to be as a student studying photovoltaics and I couldn’t have asked for a better conference experience.

 

Ross Cheriton

 

-Ross Cheriton

Ph.D Candidate, Year 1

SUNLAB, University of Ottawa

Hello everyone! I’m here to tell you all about my trip to Frankfurt, Germany for the 27th European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference and Exhibition!  I flew out of Toronto at 1pm on Saturday afternoon, and I landed in Germany at 6am Sunday morning; that’s 12am Toronto time. This was my first time travelling alone, so I was admittedly nervous about the whole experience. Flying alone into a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, and where I can’t read street signs, made the prospect of navigating my own way from the airport to my hotel a rather daunting task, but I made it okay!  At the hotel, I met up with the other members of the Photovoltaic Innovation Network (PVIN), and we set out to explore the city before our week-long conference. Frankfurt is one of the financial hubs of Europe, and it features hundreds of different banks from all over the world. It is a very international city, but also a very quiet one. At night, you don’t see too many people walking in the streets; living in Hamilton, and having spent time in Toronto, this is not something to which I am accustomed!

Frankfurt, being such an international city, made an appropriate setting for the conference. 4024 people from across 76 countries participated either by giving talks, presenting posters, or simply listening to the presentations. The conference brought a lot of different people together, and with them came a lot of different ideas. During the first few days, the presentations focused on solar cell devices, and I must say that the diversity of solar cell designs is quite amazing. There were talks on traditional silicon cells, organic cells, heterojunction cells, multijunction cells, Dye and Hybrid cells, concentrator systems and so much more! My own work involves silicon, so I was particularly interested in these talks. Silicon has been around for a long time in photovoltaics, and it is a very mature technology. I observed that a lot of the current interest in silicon is not about improving devices, but about finding ways of making them cheaper while maintaining the same performance.  For example, there were many talks on replacing the silver in silicon cells with cheaper metals such as nickel and copper. While silver has nice electrical properties that make it attractive for use in solar cells, it is also expensive and the price is somewhat unpredictable.

Later into the week, the presentations focused on the ‘big picture’ issues of solar energy. There were talks on large-scale photovoltaic power plants, grid integration, manufacturing and processing, and solar cell markets, just to name a few. These talks were interesting because they covered issues that we don’t often think about at the research level. For one, we often don’t consider the manufacturability of the devices we make in the lab. It is one thing to be able to make high efficiency solar cells one at a time in a laboratory, but it is quite another to be able to produce them in higher quantities at a large-scale factory. As a researcher, the talks I saw later in the week really put things in perspective. I saw that solar energy is not just about the research; research is only the first link in a long chain. Included in the chain are the manufacturers that mass produce cells, the engineers who build and install the systems, and the policy makers that study and regulate the deployment of these systems. There are so many contributors from across numerous disciplines working in solar energy, and the conference really reinforced that idea in me.

I must say that my favourite presentations were those by Dr. Harry Atwater from the California Institute of Technology, and Dr. Martin Green from the University of New South Wales. Both men are very prominent researchers in the field of photovoltaics, and each lead a large group of graduate students and post docs that work at the frontier of photovoltaic research. Dr. Green in particular has done some of the pioneering work in silicon cells, including making a cell that is 25% efficient. This cell holds the world record for efficiency! A neat little bit of trivia is that Dr. Green graduated with a PhD from McMaster University, where I did my undergrad and am currently working on my Master’s degree. The talks given by Drs. Atwater and Green focused on the exciting work being done to incorporate the field of plasmonics into photovoltaics. Plasmonics is a field that deals with the interaction of light with nano-sized metal structures, and the strange phenomena that can result. For example, thin sheets of metal with nanoscopic holes can be made to transmit light in one direction, but not in the opposite. For a solar cell, this means that light could enter a cell, but not escape it. A useful application, indeed!  As solar cells are made thinner, in a push to reduce cost and the amount of material used, their ability to capture light is compromised. Techniques for manipulating and trapping light then become necessary in order to maintain comparable performance with thicker cells. The field of plasmonics happens to be brimming with these techniques. I should mention that my own research involves plasmonics. I am working with ultra-thin silicon cells, and using nano-sized particles of silver as a scheme for light trapping. This is why I was especially interested in these talks. Seeing Drs. Atwater and Green speak at the conference was truly a pleasure! Considering that they are co-authors on many of the research journals that I read, it felt like I was at a concert seeing my favourite musician play!

Plasmonic nanoparticles.

 

Alongside the conference there was a solar energy exhibition, in which companies and research institutes ran booths that showed off what each had to offer. Obviously there were many companies offering just solar panels, and some had put a decorative spin on their design. For example, I saw one company that had designed the cell to have a waterfall trickling down it! Definitely something that would look nice in a backyard! Other companies were offering equipment for research or manufacturing, and these booths were the most prominent at the exhibition. The most impressive booth, in my opinion, was from a company that had actually brought a solar cell assembly line into the building. There were periodic demonstrations in which cells would be produced, ready to be used in a panel. The operators were quite secretive about the assembly line, and photography was prohibited. Our own NSERC Photovoltaic Innovation Network (http://www.pvinnovation.ca) also had a booth at the exhibition, which displayed posters that highlighted the research that we do, and the Universities and companies that are involved. Manning the booth was one of my favourite parts of the trip. At the booth, we (representatives of the Network) were able to talk one-on-one with so many interesting people, and teach them a little about what we do in Canada, and what we have to offer. We talked with students, with members of industry, and other researchers that were interested in our work. The PVIN was (to my knowledge) the only Canadian presence at the conference. I felt truly honoured to be standing there at an international convention, representing our entire country and the research that we do, all while piquing the interest of experts from all over the world. It was an absolutely amazing experience. Being there in person also showed me that interest in solar energy is a truly global phenomenon. It’s really no surprise though; the sun is essentially an unlimited source of energy!

Overall, my trip to Germany was a fantastic experience. I learned a lot at the conference, talked with many interesting people, and made some new friends with other members of the Network. I was very grateful that we all stayed in the same hotel together. Very few people had a working cell phone, so organizing trips for dinner or walks around the city would have been a nightmare had we not stayed under the same roof. The city of Frankfurt was a neat place, and according to the locals, very boring! It was mostly banks and retail stores, but we always found something to do and were never bored. Aside from the conference, food was the highlight of the trip! I don’t think I will ever be able to eat schnitzel again, because it would just pale in comparison to authentic German schnitzel. Although the trip was fun, it was also exhausting, and after a week of being away, I was excited to get home. As I mentioned before, this was my first time travelling by myself and I learned a very valuable lesson: indirect flights are no fun! I flew from Frankfurt to New Jersey, and then I had to get a taxi to New York, where I could fly back to Toronto. After 19 hours of travelling and waiting and four airports later, I finally arrived home safe and sound at Pearson! I will definitely choose my flights more wisely in the future!

Suffice to say, I really enjoyed Germany and the conference, and can’t wait for the next one! Before I go, I’d like to thank Jennifer and Sandra for all of their help in organizing the trip and making it possible! Dankeschön!

-Kevin Boyd (Year 1 of M.A.Sc in Engineering
Physics at McMaster University, Hamilton Ontario)

It is widely understood that the expansion of solar industries depends heavily on government subsidies to offset manufacturing and installation costs. Germany is the perfect example, with a fairly poor solar resource when compared to other countries, and yet it is the world’s strongest solar power economy due solely to its subsidies.

Skeptics will say that solar energy can’t become cost-competitive without government subsidies, a fact which will be hard to deny until economies of scale and technological innovation brings the price of solar energy down. However, those skeptics don’t mention that no energy sector existing today was developed without subsidies – and compared to what is received by the fossil fuel sectors, the public financial support given to solar is meagre. One of the more prevalent arguments against solar is that taxpayer money is being spent on incorporating solar into the electricity grid and that’s not true capitalism, is it?

A report by the Environmental Law Institute which reviewed U.S. government subsidies between 2002 and 2008 found that $72 billion in support was given to the well-established fossil fuel industry, which has been receiving public support for decades, while $29 billion was given to renewables, almost half of which was towards corn-based ethanol production. If solar received the same kind of subsidies as fossil fuels, solar power would actually be cheaper than conventional power.

So the playing field is an upward slope for solar when comparing to other energy sources, but subsidies are causing problems even within the solar industry. China, to be specific, is finding itself in the midst of an impending tariff case due to its own government’s support. Chinese photovoltaics companies have been alleged of “dumping” their solar panels, meaning that because they received such heavy government subsidies they have been able to sell their panels at below-value prices. The result of this case could be that the U.S. International Trade Commission will place import tariffs (of up to 100%) on solar panels imported from China, which would undoubtedly result in a price increase for end-users.

Many U.S. politicians are using Solyndra as their go-to argument for the problems with subsidizing the solar industry. Solyndra received $500 million from the government in 2009, and then filed for bankruptcy in 2011. This was clearly a blow to the industry, and many republicans have been milking Solyndra’s bankruptcy for all it’s worth, but who said that the oil industry wasn’t viable when Enron went bankrupt in 2001? Who said that wall street wasn’t viable when a multitude of investment banks went bankrupt in 2008? And let’s not pretend that those companies didn’t receive significant government support. The solar industry is undergoing a very similar transition to the auto-industry in the early 20th century. In the U.S., there were initially hundreds of auto manufacturers, but by the late 1920’s it was dominated by the big three: GM, Ford, and Chrysler. The other companies didn’t fail because the industry was doomed to fail; the industry simply needed to weed out the weakest competitors, and the strongest companies remained (with plenty of government support along the way).

What it comes down to is our future energy supply. Doesn’t it make more sense to look at subsidizing renewables as an investment in the future? Continuing on our current path, we will be dependent on both foreign oil AND foreign renewables. In order to achieve energy independence, governments need to invest in renewables such as solar while the industry is still young, and hopefully one day the solar industry will be as large and economically powerful as the oil industry is today.

-Justin Sacks

(Engineering Physics, MASc, Year 2 at McMaster University)

Ontario’s Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program has been the driving force behind the province’s expanding renewable energy industry for more than two years.  The program is now up for its scheduled two-year review date. This is an important aspect of the FIT because it allows the policy makers to make necessary adjustments to the program as they learn from the successes and failures of the past two-years.

The biannual review also allows for tariff digression, one of the most important aspects of a successful FIT program. The idea motivating tariff digression is that the province is interested in making renewables a competitive economic investment; no more, no less. If it is not competitive then people won’t invest their money. If it is too lucrative then it wastes taxpayer money and it may also endanger the program.

The province is attempting to make the review process as open and transparent as possible and as such, it is welcoming suggestions from the general public. To have your say you can fill out an online survey at http://www.energy.gov.on.ca/en/fit-and-microfit-program/2-year-fit-review/ or you can send an e-mail to 2yearFITreview@ontario.ca. Ensure your submissions arrive before Dec. 14/2011.

It is a good time to reflect back: what are some of the the notable “successes and failures” of the FIT so far? Perhaps the most notable success has been job creation. Recall that the FIT is a part of the Green Energy and Economy Act and its purpose is not only to foster a sustainable energy supply but also to develop new green-collar manufacturing and engineering jobs as well. The liberals claim 20,000 new jobs have been created but the ambiguity over the word “job” makes this figure less meaningful and thus, open to criticism. What do they mean: full-time, part-time, temporary, long-term?

A third-party consulting agency working for Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA) put the job creation in the burgeoning solar photovoltaic industry, only one form of renewable energy subsidized under the FIT program, at 8,200 PYE by the end of 2011. A PYE is a unit used to measure job creation and is equivalent to one person working full-time for one year. This figure seems commendable seeing that solar is planned to be 1.5% of the long-term energy mix where wind and bio-energy make-up the remaining 11.3% of non-hydro renewables. Looking at job creation from a different angle, the report also states that more than two new dozen solar module and inverter manufacturers have set up shop in Ontario since the FIT program’s inception. (See: http://www.cansia.ca/sites/default/files/economic_impacts_of_solar.pdf)

The road to a sustainable energy mix hasn’t been entirely smooth though. Ontario has come under fire from Japan and the European Union for being protectionist and violating international trade laws with the 60% Ontario content requirement for all FIT contracts. This is something yet to be fully battled out.

Another bump in the road concerned the issue of grid-capacity. A number of solar energy installation owners with signed FIT contracts invested the necessary the capital only to find out later that the grid in their area couldn’t handle the extra electricity. Some creative solutions were offered to this problem but capacity may continue to be an issue.

A simpler, more stream-lined, application process for small-scale contracts seems wanting as well.

However, despite the setbacks, the largest hurdle threatening the survival of the FIT has been surmounted already and that was the previous provincial election. For now the program seems well enough on-track and the present review process will likely improve upon it further.

-Erik Janssen

(Engineering Physics, MASc, Year 2 at McMaster University)