Pushing the Frontier of Solar Cells

New solar cells, called perovskites, could be a breakthrough for Latin America

Areas of Latin America, like Mexico and Chile, have some of the world’s greatest solar potential. But a new technological development in solar cells could allow them to harness more of the sun’s energy and speed the growth of solar in the region.

The new solar cells are known as perovskites. They are made of a crystalline structure and can be printed on sheets of plastic or applied as a semi-conducting pigment on a sheet of glass. They are also much simpler and cheaper to produce than traditional silicon solar panels.

 

Attractive installations costs and efficiency

An added advantage is that they can be incorporated into normal architectural features, like the outer walls of buildings or windows, for generating electricity. This opens up new possibilities beyond just rooftops for electricity production. And if perovskites are incorporated into the building during construction then there are no extra installation costs.

But lower cost is only half the story. Efficiency is also crucial, and perovskites have shown that they can compete with silicon. Indeed, since perovskites were first developed in 2009, efficiency in terms of converting the sun’s energy into electricity has risen from 3% to 22%, more or less that of silicon today, though they haven’t been tested commercially yet.

There are still a few kinks to work out. Perovskites have a tendency, for example, to degrade when exposed to humidity or high temperatures. They also typically contain lead, a potential health hazard, which might require either alternative materials or adjustments to prevent them from contaminating the environment.

New solar cells, called perovskites, could be a breakthrough for Latin America

Copyright 2017 The World Bank, Solar resource data: Solargis.

The promise of Perovskites for cleaner energy 

Although Perovskites have huge potential as a stand-alone solar cell, they will first hit the market as a complement to traditional silicon solar panels in tandem solar cells, according to a recent Ted Talk. These layer a perovskite coating, which captures the blue end of the spectrum, onto a traditional silicon layer, which captures the red end of the spectrum. In this way, tandem cells capture more of the spectrum and achieve greater efficiencies than traditional silicon panels can offer. Oxford Photovoltaics in Britain is in the process of bringing this tandem solar cell to market.

No Latin American country ranks in the top 30 countries by installed solar capacity per capita. But Chile, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil all rank in the top 15 countries for renewable energy attractiveness, (which takes into account various factors including energy potential and the policy environment) according to a report by EY.

It is hard to tell yet whether perovskites and tandem solar cells are the wave of the future. If they fulfill their promise, however, they could make a big difference in helping Latin America move towards cleaner energy.

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The Author

Bridget Hoffmann

Bridget Hoffmann

Bridget Hoffmann is an economist in the Research Department of the Inter-American Development Bank. Her research interests are applied microeconomics, development economics, and environmental economics. She received her Ph.D. in Economics from Northwestern University in 2015. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Financial Economics and Mathematics from the University of Rochester.

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