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Solar CIGS reach 15.7 percent efficiency

DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory confirms efficiency claim of thin-film photovoltaic manufacturer.

MiaSole's manufacturing MiaSole

The Department of Energy has confirmed that MiaSole's thin-film photovoltaic solar modules have reached an efficiency of 15.7 percent, the company announced today.

That is an efficiency improvement of more than 1 percent since last year when the company was given a 14.3 percent efficiency rating from the DOE's 's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, according to MiaSole.

Solar panel efficiency ratings signify how much power one gets out of a solar panel per square inch, something obviously of great interest to companies and consumers evaluating which solar panels to purchase for projects.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based MiaSole makes flexible copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) thin-film photovoltaic panels with integrated electronics--an alternative to traditional solar panels made from polycrystalline silicon.

CIGS solar panels have traditionally been less efficient at converting solar rays into electricity than silicon solar panels, but can be built on flexible forms making them less expensive to manufacture and offering more choices as to how they can be integrated with a building.

"An almost 1.5 percent absolute increase in efficiency in such a short time on a continuous roll-to-roll manufacturing line is impressive and demonstrates good process control and a validation of the MiaSole approach," Rommel Noufi, a solar researcher at NREL, said in MiaSole's press release.

Noufi pointed out that the rating brings the company closer to achieving the DOE's goal of "$1 per watt."

Many corporate consumers and utilities, while they do look at efficiency rating, evaluate solar modules based on their total cost per watt, including installation costs, and exactly how many kilowatt-hours a given system can produce annually. The DOE announced in August that for solar panels to be competitive without government subsidies against traditional electricity, solar panels will likely have to cost $1 per watt to install and acheive greater efficiency.

It's estimated the solar industry will get to $2 per watt within the next five years, though currently large-scale solar systems still cost between $3 and $4 per watt, according to the DOE's August assessment (PDF).

This new upgrade in efficiency certainly helps MiaSole's crusade to compete with traditional silicon solar cells. And it comes at a time when many CIGS companies are struggling to compete against silicon, which has become significantly cheaper and more efficient than it once was, according to analysts like Lux Research.

Silicon panels on the market generally have efficiency ratings of at least 15 percent efficiency or better. SunPower, for example, announced in May its SunPower E19 Series silicon solar panels have an efficiency of 19 percent. Others have claimed that they're testing solar panels in laboratories with efficiencies as high as 41 percent.

MiaSole already got one boost this year from Wal-Mart. The retail giant announced in September it would use First Solar and MiaSole solar panels as it continues its program to add solar panels to Wal-Mart store roofs in sunny places like Arizona, California, and Hawaii.