Solar Situation: An Interview With Frank Jeffrey
Posted on 03/16/2016 at 12:00 AM by Seth Hansen
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with PowerFilm CEO, Frank Jeffrey. We discussed solar trends, how things have changed since he began working in the solar field and everything in between.
When did you first get involved in solar?
I’ve been involved in solar since the mid 70’s
What about solar intrigued you and made you want to get involved?
Solar is interesting, but it was the specific technology that I was working on that intrigued me and solar was one of the significant applications.
What technology intrigued you?
Amorphous silicon. It was a whole new way of looking at semiconductors. It was a new material that was quite different than the classical physics way of looking at material. There was a wide open opportunity to develop a whole new understanding of an entirely new material.
How long had amorphous silicon been around?
It was first fabricated in the late 60’s but it took about 10 years to even understand the fundamental parts of the material and why it was doing what it was. It was a matter of significant argument, lots of research and it was a very exciting time to develop the physics that went with this new material.
Was there a lot of contention and debate over amorphous silicon in the early years?
Absolutely. There were debates over the very nature of the substance. What is this? The understanding and evolution of that understanding actually mirrored the understanding of crystalline silicon. It was like reaching a whole new continent for the first time. There are similarities to crystalline, they’re on the same planet, but it’s a whole different world.
Amorphous silicon was also special because it could be commercial; it could be profitable. It could be used for solar purposes and also in liquid crystal displays.
Another intriguing part of this technology that made it attractive was the solar application.
As a field of study, amorphous silicon was the best of all worlds. It was a fascinating new material, it had commercial applications, and it could provide social benefit.
How much solar do you think would be required to power the United States?
An easy way to explain it would be that the area of the roads in the United States if converted into solar could power the country. This is also a lesson in just how many miles of road there are in the US.
Is there a technology in the more infant stages that could become a contender in this marketplace?
The HIT Cell is a variant on crystalline. Not a new product but a variant.
What is the biggest difference in the solar community today as opposed to when you first entered the solar arena?
In the United States what people describe as the solar community is a totally different thing. When I started, the community was focused on the semiconductor technology and the manufacturing of solar.
Solar today doesn’t mean the same thing that it meant in the 60’s and 70’s. Back then solar production was mostly based in the U.S. and Germany. Now, solar in the United States is mostly imported. What was in the United States is now in China.
The solar industry in the United States is now installation based. When they say the solar industry is growing they mean the installation of imported solar.
What caused the shift from development of solar technology to importing from elsewhere?
The initial development was between the U.S. and Europe back and forth. The goal was to develop the technology and keep the cost down so it could be widely applied.
In the early 2000’s China decided to “own” solar. They made the decision that solar was going to be theirs. They wanted to control the manufacturing of the panels.
China had reasons to pursue solar: profit, environmental, energy. They looked at the entire supply chain from mining raw silicon sources, growing or casting of ingots, cutting into wafers, making them into solar cells and framing and encapsulating the cells.
They achieved a total cost/watt that was considered unattainable by most people in the U.S. They invested into the system.
What is the biggest challenge facing solar companies today, and what is the biggest challenge for US based solar companies?
It depends on what you call a solar company. If you mean a company that manufactures solar, there are very few outside of Asia. Some U.S. companies that had spectacular technologies have somewhat protected themselves by moving the production of their product to Asia.
There’s big solar and there’s small solar. We are small solar in a specialized, low-volume niche.
China still very heavily subsidizes their solar industry. They subsidize their industry and exports. The U.S. subsidizes installation. In essence the Chinese companies get subsidized twice; once by China for manufacturing and once by the U.S. for installation.
What are your thoughts on the incredible growth of solar?
I am very happy to see the large and growing installation base of solar. It couldn’t have happened any other way. We couldn’t have gotten to this stage but for the Chinese deciding they were going to take over and do this
What is on the horizon for solar? What piques your interest?
It’s really amazing that the advances continue. There have been times all the way through the advancements in solar that people thought the technology was mature.
Due to the economy of scale, new technologies are going to have a very difficult time making it in the solar market because their costs are going to be too high. They’ll be blocked from the market. They’ll go out of business.
So you’re saying that a better technology could emerge, but due to lack of backing could be run out of the market even if they have a wonderful product?
Definitely, happens all the time. A technological improvement has to change the whole landscape to overcome something that is totally entrenched and has the economy of scale.
Do you see the potential of this “solar boom” leveling off?
Due to the massive number of subsidies it is hard to predict. When those financial benefits are no longer dominant you might see a decline.
Germany was the leader in solar adoption for a while because they had huge subsidies. Now, not much installation is happening there.
What are your thoughts on Tesla’s Powerwall?
Tesla’s Powerwall is probably the most important change for the implementation of solar energy that has ever occurred.
It is an absolute watershed moment. Similar to how Tesla’s car changed the automobile industry. The Powerwall will change the solar industry.
Have there been other battery methods for storing energy homeowner’s solar panels generate?
The standard system before the Powerwall was these massive banks of lead acid batteries. They have a limited life cycle and also are extremely heavy.
Lead acid has been the best battery storage mechanism for one hundred years, but lithium batteries have been slowly evolving. With the push that came from Tesla, the batteries were pushed past a threshold of where it makes sense.
When I first saw the price on the Powerwall I was quite impressed. What was your reaction?
I was astounded to see the price on these battery banks. That’s a price the world can live with.
I could see battery banks like that implemented in Iowa to match with wind power. We don’t have the best sunlight year round, but wind, we do have wind.
The Powerwall took people from saying, “this can’t be used widespread.” to “Oh yeah, it could work.”
What I found to be most intriguing about our time together was Jeffrey’s response to the Powerwall. Having been in the solar community for well over thirty years, Jeffrey understands just how monumental Tesla’s move was and what it will mean to the future of renewable energy.
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Categories: Solar Education