The 19.9% efficiency doesn't seem all that fantastic when compared with 42% efficient monocrystaline solar panels. But the advantage of thin-film cells has long been how cheap they can be to produce and install. They can be produced in a variety of ways (people are literally using inkjet printers to create them) and they're just a fraction of the weight of traditional solar cells.
For a long time, thin-film scientists have been working to get costs lower and lower, with less concern for the efficiency of the cells. However, shortages in indium, one of the elements used in making the cells, has renewed interest in increasing efficiency. And, of course, any efficiency increase helps to make the panels more economical over the lifetime of the cell.
That is, if the efficiency doesn't come at a great cost. NREL increased the efficiency so substantially by "increasing the quality of the material applied" during manufacturing. While this doesn't say much, it does indicate that it was likely pretty expensive to do. But worrying about economics isn't the job of government labs. They prove what can be done, and then it's more or less up to the private sector to incorporate the technology into their production.
Hopefully, we'll see some thin-film startups focusing more on efficiency soon. It'd be a shame to see the world's total supply of indium get sucked into 8% efficient cells.
written by Jeff, March 31, 2008
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