National Center for Photovoltaics

National Center for Photovoltaics logo

As part of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the NCPV is responsible for coordinating research, driving innovation, and promoting the growth of solar power in the United States.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory

The NCPV is part of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, an organisation funded by the United States’ Department of Energy which aims to increase uptake of renewable energy provision by coordinating and funding research activities that make such technologies more competitive by improving their reliability and efficiency.

The NREL is based in the town of Golden, Colorado, and in addition to studying photovoltaic technology, also carries out research on bioenergy and wind power, working with private companies, academics, and other industry stakeholders. One of the factors affecting the uptake of renewables is the relatively high investment risk of introducing new technologies and systems that have, as yet, been unable to operate on the scales needed to replace fossil fuels.

By providing technical and non-technical resources, the NREL aims to reduce these risks, allowing private companies to overcome this potential barrier to carbon reduction.

National Center for Photovoltaics

Inaugurated in the year 1996, the National Center for Photovoltaics (NCPV) is tasked with promoting research that improves the efficiency and reliability of photovoltaic cells, while disseminating relevant findings to the industry and public alike.

This involves providing an overall strategic vision for research and development activities within the sector and uniting industry, universities and investors in a bid to make the USA’s solar power industry more globally competitive.

The end goal of this is to not only to provide benefits for energy producers but also for the American public by lowering energy prices, reducing pollution, and generating additional employment.

The NCPV coordinates research activity between the NREL, the Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies (QESST) Center and the Bay Area Photovoltaics Consortium as part of the Department of Energy’s “SunShot Initiative”. Solar power has traditionally suffered from a relatively high unit cost when compared with traditional technologies, limiting its growth.

The aim of the SunShot Initiative is to reduce these costs to 6 cents ($0.06) per kilowatt-hour (kw/h) by the year 2020, estimated to be a critical milestone in making photovoltaic power generation economically attractive for investors and large-scale producers. This target is to be extended further, reducing cost per kw/h by an additional 50% before 2030.

The NCPV also acts as sponsor of the “Solar Decathlon”, an annual competition in which teams of students compete in the design of solar-powered buildings and installations.

Research Areas

The NCPV has invested 225 million US dollars into research on a number of possible technological pathways towards achieving its 6 cents per kw/h target. These involve research on different semi-conductor types such as cadmium telluride and other polycrystaline films, designed for greater efficiency by allowing more sunlight to penetrate the upper layers of a solar panel, to other technologies such as organic photovoltaic cells made from organic polymers, which have the advantage of lower manufacturing costs and decreased weight.

A potential problem of many semi-conductor types is that they rely on relatively rare elements that are difficult to mine in the quantities required and which must be imported from elsewhere, raising unit costs. Consequently, the NCPV conducts research into semi-conductors that utilise more abundant materials. In addition to varying conductor types and combinations, other projects look at how solar panels can be designed to operate efficiently at the higher temperatures frequently found in sunnier regions of the country such as the deserts of the South-West with their warmer, arid climates.

Technical Services

The NCPV provides a range of measurement services allowing the performance of newly developed photovoltaic designs to evaluated using standard tests, not only at the main centre in Colorado, but also at their regional testing centres across the United States in Vermont, Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico.

These tests include analytical microscopy, surface analysis and a range of other performance and reliability metrics. The NCPV also validates energy ratings and has contributed towards the establishment of national standards for photovoltaics.

Research Cell Efficiency Ratings

To help disseminate the current state of the art in photovoltaic development, the NCPV publishes plots of the efficiency ratings of a wide range of cell types, including multijunction cells, single-junction gallium arsenide and crystaline sillicon cells, thin-film technologies, and emergerging technology types such as organic photovoltaics.

The values in the NREL Efficiency Chart are derived from standardised testing protocols whereby each cell type is tested in consistent conditions with respect to temperature, illumination, and cell area. Values are available from 1976 onwards, showing the current world records for each technology type.

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