Emerging Technologies in Solar PV: identifying and Cultivating Potential Winners

Emerging Technologies in Solar PV: identifying and Cultivating Potential Winners

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Description: Numerous recent scholarly articles address and confirm the positive relationship between R&D and total factor productivity. They include: “The impact of research and development on economic growth: The case of the MENA countries” (2015) by Lamia Ben Amor and Naceur Ben Zina of the University of Economics and Management of Sfax, Tunisia, “The modern drivers of productivity” (2014) by Francesco Venturini of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, London, and “The Impacts of Research and Development Expenditures” (2011) by John J. Wetter of the University of Maryland.

For example, “Mission Hope” in the UAE, which aims to send an unmanned space probe to Mars by 2020. Further, KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) in Saudi Arabia has one of the fastest-growing research and citation records of any university in the world, and the “Manama” project in Qatar aims to develop a cutting-edge, secure computer model that could allow the use of sensitive data on untrusted platforms without any security ris.

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Emerging technologies in Solar
PV: identifying and cultivating
potential winners
Traversing the PV lab-to-fab “valleys of death”

Executive summary


1. Introduction – the rise and dominance of c-Si photovoltaics


2. Defining the credentials of potentially disruptive PV technologies


3. The contenders


4. The top-three emerging PV technologies of tomorrow


5. Cultivating potential winners – avoiding the valleys of death


6. Traversing the valleys of death


Summary and conclusions



Dr. Jaap Kalkman

Adnan Merhaba

Partner, Dubai

Principal, Dubai

Samrat Bose

Henry Bradley

Manager, Dubai

Analyst, Dubai

Acknowledgement for their support and valuable input: Stephen Rogers (Partner, ADL), Dr. Robin Francis (Principal, ADL)
and Abdulrahman Almuhanna (Taqnia Energy)

Executive summary
The rapidly declining unit cost of silicon-based photovoltaic (PV) cells over the past four decades
has facilitated the advent of PV as a commercially viable energy source. However, emerging PV
technologies currently in development show the potential to disrupt and replace the dominant
market incumbent crystalline silicon (c-Si) technology in the future. These technologies have been
used to record cell efficiencies more than three times that of typical commercial c-Si PV, and have
growing academic and financial sponsorship and the prospect of value-creating cross-applicability
and complementarity between materials and technology. The question now is whether the longterm viability of c-Si as the market leader has a time limit in the face of these emerging challengers.
In this article we survey the materials and technologies we think have the most potential to disrupt
the PV market in the coming decade. We identify our top three potential disruptors as: perovskite,
quantum-dot photovoltaics, and concentrated photovoltaics. Further, we present the policy
implications of our analysis and conclude that a winning combination of financial muscle and an
enlightened, patient, long-term view in which concerned actors do not cave into external demands
for short-term returns are the key prerequisites for the future major sponsors of emerging PV
technology. The onus is on the potential sponsors possessing these qualifications to step in and
deliver the support required for these fledgling technologies, which have the potential to
revolutionize the renewable energy game with sufficient backing, but may go undeveloped in the
absence of this. Developing effective methods of sourcing and allocating funding is also imperative.
In short, the challenge of future sponsors will be to ensure these technologies do not fall prey to
the lab-to-fab “valleys of death” that have endangered promising PV technologies in the past.


Emerging Technologies in Solar PV

1. Introduction – the rise and dominance
of c-Si photovoltaics
The rapid increase in overall photovoltaic (PV) electricity
production has been facilitated by one key factor – the declining
unit cost of silicon-based solar cells. The cost in dollars per watt
($/W) of crystalline silicon (c-Si) PV cells has declined from a
peak of over $76 in 1977 to $5 in 2000, to just $0.30 in 2015
(Figure 1). This has enabled the commercial viability of PV
electricity for the first time in history. PV electricity production
has already reached “grid parity”1 in close to 40 countries, and
is forecasted to reach this point in over 50% of the world’s
countries by 20172. Photovoltaic electricity generation is here
and commercially viable today.
Representing over 90% of worldwide installed PV capacity, c-Si
PV cells3 have been the vanguard to date. The affordability of
such c-Si cells is driven by the economies of scale of its main
ingredient, silicon, generated in the booming semi-conductor
industry. Although the cost reduction of c-Si was good news for
manufacturers in terms of competitiveness with conventional

energy sources, the strong competitive position of c-Si in the
free market drove other promising PV technologies out to the
The continually falling cost of c-Si has made it incredibly difficult
for other technologies to compete. This is despite the fact that,
theoretically, silicon is not particularly well suited for photovoltaic
uses because it is an indirect bandgap semi-conductor and has a
low absorption coefficient. One such promising technology that
suffered from competition with c-Si is copper indium gallium
selenide (CIGS). Although exhibiting promise to ultimately be
more cost competitive than c-Si, it was driven to near extinction
due to its lesser technological maturity and yet-unproven cost
advantage. As we frame it in this article, CIGS fell prey to one
of the two lab-to-fab “valleys of death” (in which funding is
not sustained at a sufficient level to bring the technology to
commercial fruition) on the precipitous road to the consumer.

Figure 1: Cumulative installed PV capacity (GWp) vs. price of c-Si PV cells ($/W)



Price ($/W)


Capacity (GWp)





Global Cumulative Installed PV Capacity (GWp)

Price of c-Si PV cells ($/W)

Source: Price Data: Bloomberg New Energy Finance; PV Capacity Data: EPIA (European Photovoltaics Industry Association)

1 Grid parity occurs when an alternative energy source can generate power at a levelized cost that is less than or equal to the price of purchased power from the
traditional electricity grid.
2 According to Deutsche Bank.
3 c-Si cells are broken down into the two groups of mono-crystalline and multi-crystalline. Mono-crystalline silicon is made from single crystals, grown in the shape of
round pillars, whereas multi-crystalline silicon is made by pouring molten silicon into a cube-shaped mold and letting it cool and solidify.


Emerging Technologies in Solar PV

2. Defining the credentials of potentially
disruptive PV technologies
In the last 15 years, cutting-edge PV concepts including
concentrated photovoltaics (CPV), multi-junction cells, organic
photovoltaics (OPV), cadmium telluride (CdTe), quantum-dot
cells, perovskite, and (to some extent, the exotic and not-yetfully-understood) graphene, have all been receiving attention
from both academic and financial arenas. These emerging
technologies have the potential to disrupt c-Si because of their
dual abilities to:

Qualifications in these two abilities, in addition to other relevant
dynamics, particularly synergies and complementarities with
important existing technology, are the prerequisites that certify a
PV technology as potentially disruptive.
In this article we identify the main contenders that possess the
potential to disrupt in the next 10–15 years as: 1) perovskite, 2)
quantum-dot photovoltaics, and 3) concentrated photovoltaics.

1. Beat c-Si directly in PV applications due to lower long-term
$/W potential.
2. Venture into new applications outside of PV; we call this
“cross-industry applicability”
Figure 2: Best research-cell efficiencies

Source: NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Colorado, USA)


Emerging Technologies in Solar PV

3. The contenders
A shortlist of the most potentially disruptive emerging PV technologies over the next
10–15 years (from most to least technologically mature)
1. Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) Thin Film
Cadmium telluride is a stable crystalline compound formed
from cadmium (Cd) and tellurium (Te) which has been used in
research cells since the early 1970s.

Advantages and disruptive potential
Thin-film4 CdTe PV cells show particular disruptive potential
owing to the fact that they can be manufactured quickly and
relatively inexpensively compared to c-Si counterparts. The
standing record research-cell efficiency for CdTe is 21.5%,
achieved by Arizona-based First Solar. Further, the First Solar
R&D department claims to have a clear line of sight to a 23.0%
efficient thin-film cell. CdTe looks to be on the up in terms of
cell efficiency, where c-Si stagnates5; hence, it could qualify as
potentially disruptive.

Key challenges

(CuGaSe) which has been actively researched since the mid1970s.

Advantages and disruptive potential
This contender, which lost out to c-Si, has gained new ground
and can be considered potentially disruptive once again. CIGS
production has grown exponentially since 2007 and market,
leading CIGS manufacturers such as Solar Frontier can be
fairly confident about the future, given the potential for CIGS
to reach c-Si levels of efficiency. They can also enjoy continued
production cost reduction owing to advances such as lowtemperature thin-film deposition techniques. CIGS has another
advantage over c-Si (as do all such thin-film-capable PVs) in
that it can be made with a high degree of physical flexibility if a
plastic or flexible metal backing substrate is used. This flexibility
is beneficial in terms of the diversity of applications for which
these panels can be used.

The main drawback of CdTe technology is the highly toxic
nature of one of its two main ingredients – cadmium, which
is specifically listed in the European Restriction of Hazardous
Substances6. Alongside stringent safety precautions during
production, the environmental concern generated by this
toxicity is somewhat mitigated by the recycling of CdTe solar
modules at the end of their lifetime. Nevertheless, there are still
uncertainties, and public opinion remains skeptical. The scarcity
of the other main ingredient in CdTe, tellurium, is a further
drawback. CdTe is very limited in its cross-industry applicability,
which further limits its disruptive potential.

Key challenges

2. CIGS Thin Film

Differing from conventional non-concentrated PV systems,
concentrated PV (CPV) systems use lenses and curved mirrors
to focus sunlight onto small but highly efficient solar cells.

Copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) is a solid solution of
copper indium selenide (CuInSe) and copper gallium selenide

However, although these applications are fitting when
considering smaller private and highly exact commercial uses,
they do not offer advantage in utility-scale PV plant applications
in which features such as flexibility are all but irrelevant. If CIGS
is to make it as a disruptor, it still needs to show its commercial
viability in terms of cell efficiency.7 A further shortcoming,
much like CdTe, is that CIGS has no compelling cross-industry
applicability outside of solar energy.

3. Concentrated Photovoltaics (CPV)

4 “Thin-film” is a class of PV technologies that uses very thin depositions of semi-conductor materials compared to non-thin-film counterparts. Film thickness in thin-films
varies from a few nanometers (nm) to tens of micrometers (µm) – much thinner than conventional c-Si, which uses silicon wafers of up to 200 µm.
5 There have been no fewer than eight world records for CdTe cell efficiency in the last five years compared to just two over the same period for standard mono- and
multi-c-Si cells.
6 Although its use in PV panels specifically is exempted from these restrictions.
7 Currently CIGS lags at around ~13.0% efficiency in typical commercial applications.


Emerging Technologies in Solar PV

Advantages and disruptive potential

3a. Multi-Junction Solar Cells

Reviewing the latest NREL8 chart of the best PV research-cell
efficiencies (Figure 2) to date, it is clear that CPV stands alone
as the clear winner in this particular dimension. Specifically, in
late 2014 a solar cell developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for
Solar Energy Systems converted 46.0% of the sunlight hitting
its surface into electricity. To contextualize, the highest recorded
efficiency of a non-concentrated PV cell is 38.8%, and the
industry-standard c-Si cells have only ever reached 27
.6% (under
concentrated sunlight) in the lab and typically operate at around
15.0% commercially (in which case the use of concentrated
sunlight is currently rare).

In order to unlock the full potential of CPV technology, nonconventional multi-junction (MJ) solar cells must be employed.
Differing from conventional single-junction solar cells, which are
constituted of one layer of a single type of photovoltaic material,
MJ solar cells involve the use of several different materials
stacked in multiple layers, or “junctions”

Given how far ahead of the competition it is in terms of
cell efficiency, it may be tempting to declare CPV as the PV
technology of the future. Cell efficiency is a major determinant
of what can be considered the optimal technology that can
operate at the lowest unit-cost for a number of reasons. In
the first order, the higher the cell efficiency, the less surface
area you need to generate the same Wp9 of electricity, and
hence, the smaller the quantity of solar cells that need to be
manufactured. In the second order, cell efficiency indirectly
reduces the costs associated with the balance of systems (BoS)
and initial installation of the PV system.

Key challenges
CPV cell efficiencies were first officially recorded as early as
1983. Yet, the technology has never achieved mass commercial
deployment, despite some early attempts10. Alas, this seeming
super star still falls short on important cost factors, including the
need for supplementary expensive accompanying components11
and further added production expense, owing to greater
design complexity and BoS costs. CPV also has little to zero
cross-industry applicability. Further, CPV can only be used in
regions with high direct normal irradiance (exposure to direct
sunlight), and thus the potential market is limited. However, in
regions suited to CPV12, its extremely high proven efficiency is

Advantages and disruptive potential
By focusing sunlight onto the surface area of a multi-junction
solar cell in a CPV system, very high cell efficiencies can be
realized – far above that which has been demonstrated by
any single-junction counterpart. This is because the different
materials in each junction absorb a unique portion of the
electromagnetic spectrum of which sunlight is constituted. The
right combination of materials can therefore capture far more
energy than any single-junction cell. An MJ cell13 was used in
the 46.0% all-time cell efficiency record cited above, integrated
into a CPV system. Given that the maximum efficiency achieved
by a single-junction cell is 29.1%, it is patently clear that this
method of stacking materials has tremendous benefits. MJ
cells fare well even in the absence of concentrated sunlight.
Spectrolab14 demonstrated an MJ cell in November 2013 with
a record 38.8% efficiency, the highest-ever efficiency without
sunlight concentration.

Key challenges
However, of course, there are drawbacks. In the case of MJ
cells, the drawbacks are cost related. With the conventional
single-junction alternative, only one material is needed, whereas
in an MJ cell every layer of material comes with its associated
cost. Additionally, the materials that are used in the most
efficient experimental lab MJ cells are expensive relative to the
commercial c-Si benchmark. For instance, one popular material
for one of the junctions in a high-efficiency MJ cell is gallium
arsenide (GaAs), which is approximately 1,000 times more
expensive than its silicon rival15. For this reason, these galliumbased MJ cells have been relegated to exotic applications
such as satellites, for which the main cost is satellite launch.
Therefore, the greater cost of gallium-based MJ cells is
warranted, given their weight-to-output advantage relative to
single-junction counterparts.

8 The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, located in Colorado, US.
9 Wp = watt peak. This value specifies the output power achieved by a solar cell under full solar radiation under set standard test conditions (STC).
10 For instance, Soitec attempted to commercialize CPV in its early stages, but has since divested its solar system business entirely.
11 All concentrated photovoltaics (CPV) require tracking technology that orients their solar modules directly towards the sun (with accuracy of ±0.1% to maintain at least
90.0% of the rated power output).
12 For instance, in the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Australia where direct normal irradiance is highest.
13 Specifically, that cell was a wafer-bonded four-junction cell constructed using gallium indium phosphide, gallium arsenide, gallium indium arsenide phosphide, and
gallium indium arsenide (GaInP/GaAs/GaInAsP/GaInAs).
14 A subsidiary of Boeing.
15 According to Aneesh Nainani at Stanford, who lectures on the topic of semiconductor manufacturing, an eight-inch wafer of gallium arsenide costs approximately
$5,000, whereas a typical silicon eight-inch wafer costs around $5.


Emerging Technologies in Solar PV

4. Organic Photovoltaics (OPV)
OPV aims to provide an Earth-abundant, low-energy PV power
solution using organic polymer semi-conductor components.

Advantages and disruptive potential
Because of the all-carbon nature of the polymers used, a
manufacturing technique called “roll-to-roll” processing is
possible with OPV solar panels, which could result in very
low-cost and high-volume production-line output. This,
combined with the material’s physical flexibility and potential for
transparency, makes it appealing for exotic uses such as building

Key challenges
Despite having been actively researched since 2001, OPV
research-cell efficiencies to date are still lagging around the
11.0% mark. Hence, significant viability barriers remain.
Therefore, in terms of utility-scale PV electricity production,
the outlook remains bleak because of persisting higher $/W
electricity production costs.
Some cross-industry synergies do exist for OPV, owing to
its existence in the context of the broader scientific field of
organic electronics. If this field were to grow in importance on
the back of important further breakthroughs, OPV could get an
advantageous nudge in the right direction in terms of cost and

5. Quantum-dot Photovoltaics
Quantum-dot photovoltaics are made up of PV cell designs
that use quantum dots (nanocrystals made of semiconductor
materials that are small enough to exhibit quantum mechanical
properties) as the absorbing PV material.

Advantages and disruptive potential
Unlike the other technologies covered here that consist of
“bulk” materials and have “fixed bandgaps” quantum-dot
cells have what is called a “tunable bandgap” In lay terms, by
varying the size of the quantum dots used, the type of solar
energy that can be absorbed can be altered or “tuned”This
is useful since by including quantum-dot technology as one
junction in a multi-junction cell, solar energy that is usually lost
as heat can be captured. This cutting-edge technique has been
dubbed “multiple exciton generation” (MEG) by the NREL,
which is among the pioneers of quantum-dot PV research. The
prospect of engineering such tunable bandgaps means that

once quantum-dot cells reach adequate efficiency (contingent
on adequate R&D support from sponsoring institutions), the
technology exhibits very high potential complementarities with
other emerging PV technologies, including those surveyed in
this article.

Key challenges
However, coming in with the lowest research-cell efficiency
record to date (having been posting records since 2010),
quantum-dot PV cells have much distance to cover before
they can compete16. Nevertheless, this technology should
by no means be written off or cast aside. Efficiency is but
one of the determinants of $/W potential, as well as other
important factors, such as the ability of the material to play
a complementary role with important existing technology. In
this regard, quantum-dot technology shows high potential.
Researchers have discovered potential applications for quantum
dots, including in transistors, LEDs, LCD TV displays17, diode
lasers, medical imaging, and quantum computing. As with
silicon, if economies of scale arise for quantum-dot technologies
in other industries, the associated cost reductions would greatly
benefit the PV aspect of quantum-dot opportunities.

6. Perovskite
Perovskite cells, which are primarily lead-halide based, lend their
name to the class of compounds which have the same type of
crystal structure as calcium titanate, known as the “perovskite

Advantages and disruptive potential
Having been in very early stages of development throughout the
2000s, by 2009 this highly exotic material was only achieving
efficiency levels of around 3.8%. This performance is paltry
even compared to commercial c-Si average of around 15.0%.
However, recent advances have resulted in significant stepimprovements in performance, such that the best recorded
efficiency in the lab now stands at 20.1%. This is a faster
rate-of-efficiency increase than any of the other emerging PV
technologies, as can be seen on the NREL efficiencies chart
in Figure 2. The journal Nature validated the unprecedented
character of this rapid improvement by hailing one of the
perovskite pioneers, Henry J. Snaith, as one of 2013’s “ten
people who mattered”
If perovskite continues its rapid ascent up the efficiency records
table, the material could turn out to be truly revolutionary. Given
the importance of reaching efficiency levels of around 25.0%

16 Quantum-dot cells have yet to break through the 10.0% efficiency barrier, even in the lab.
17 The first commercial release of a product utilizing quantum dots was the Sony XBR X900A series of flat-screen TVs released in 2013. Sony used quantum dots to
increase the color gamut of its LCD displays.


Emerging Technologies in Solar PV

for commercial viability, this continued momentum is a key
factor for success. However, perovskite fanatics should heed
the cautionary tale of the CIGS story told in the introduction
to this article, making sure they are sufficiently sensitive to
the risky nature of presuming recurrent efficiency gains under
technological uncertainty.

Key challenges
A considerable challenge for perovskite is its instability. Because
it degrades quickly due to its high sensitivity to moisture, it
must be enclosed in a watertight seal. Some cells fabricated in
this way have performed stably for more than 1,000 hours, and
experimental results suggest that perovskite cells can generate
stable power for more than 2,000 hours under full sunlight.
However, with the industry-standard 25-year warranty for solar
panels (equating to ~54,000 hours under full sunlight), it is clear
that finding an effective, inexpensive moisture barrier to counter
this instability is crucial for perovskite PV commercial viability.
Further, the cross-industry synergies of perovskite, if any exist,
have yet to emerge. The only minor discovery made so far was
a demonstration in 2014 showing that perovskite could generate
laser light from visible light with 70% efficiency. If perovskite is
to successfully rise to dominance in the PV market, it appears
that it may need to do so without the external economies-ofscale advantage enjoyed by c-Si.

7. Graphene
Graphene is a highly exotic material at the cutting edge of
development. It is made of a single layer of carbon atoms that
are bonded together in a repeating pattern of hexagons.

storage. Currently, due to the necessarily cyclical nature
of PV electricity generation throughout the day and year,
problems have emerged which are rooted in the constantly
changing difference in the amount of energy output from that
demanded of any PV plant. Consequently, reliable, efficient, and
inexpensive storage capabilities are crucial to PV viability as a
dependable major utility. In response to this distinctive problem,
a Canadian renewable energy company, Sunvault Energy, has
formed a joint venture to develop UCLA-patented graphene
super-capacitor technology. This, it says, when incorporated
with its own currently existing PV technology, will result in the
creation of a device capable of generating, transferring, and
storing energy in one unit, all because of the super-capacitating
capabilities of graphene. If efficient-enough graphene PV cells
can be developed, this means that PV plants constituted entirely
of graphene-based components (i.e. both the generation and
storage elements of a PV plant could be graphene-based) are
possible in the future.
Elsewhere, in the corporate world, Apple and Samsung
have both launched themselves into the graphene battle
by doing what they know and do best, racing for patents.
As a transparent material that conducts electricity (it can
be stretched across the glass surfaces of phone screens
to make them into touchscreens) and is thinner, stronger,
and more flexible than any current material, graphene is
ideal for futuristic gadgets such as bendable smartwatches
or tablets that fold up into smartphones. Consequently, the
two tech giants have been amassing arsenals of graphenerelated patents, in part because sales of so-called “wearable
computing devices” are predicted to rise 14-fold in the next
five years (according to Bloomberg).

Advantages and disruptive potential
Much excitement has arisen recently in the academic and
corporate world concerning graphene and its plethora of
potential applications, which include, but are not by any
means limited to, PV. In terms of PV-specific applications, MIT
researchers announced in June 2013 their aim to develop a new
solar cell made from graphene in combination with molybdenum
disulfide, which they say has the potential to achieve the
absolute maximum power conversion possible by a PV cell18. In
2014 a different group at MIT developed a flexible transparent
graphene-based electrode for graphene polymer solar cells,
reporting it as the most efficient such electrode ever developed.
Outside of PV-specific applications, graphene has the potential
to solve another major challenge in the PV business – energy

As a material with the potential of extremely high cross-industry
applicability, graphene naturally invites comparison with silicon
and its functional and industrial revolution over the past 40
years. The importance of this comparability should not be taken
lightly. As emphasized earlier, technologies which exhibit crossindustry applicability and a high degree of complementarity
with important existing technologies have additional inherent
value magnitudes of difference beyond single-application
technologies. If graphene as a PV technology can “piggy-back”
on the growth of graphene as a material applied in other areas,
it will experience a huge competitive advantage by free-riding
its way down to and beyond the grid-parity tipping point of PV
commercial viability, just as silicon did.

18 However, the unofficial record of graphene-based cell efficiencies to date is still down at the ~15.0% mark and not yet officially verified.


Emerging Technologies in Solar PV

Key challenges
As it is currently in very early stages of development, it is really
too early to say with certainty whether graphene will live up to
the high expectations. However, if the world’s largest and most
successful technology corporations, such as Apple, IBM, and
Samsung, are spending serious amounts of time and money
filing graphene-related patent applications (by 2013 Samsung,
the purported leader, had filed over 400 graphene-related
patents worldwide), the intimation of the huge potential of
graphene is somewhat validated. If the material does live up
to its hype, then PV graphene stands to benefit tremendously
from the economies-of-scale advantage generated by the rapidly
growing future graphene-manufacturing business.

The most important scientific developments in history often
do not come as a result of actively pursuing a previously
defined target, but serendipitously, in so-called “eureka”
moments. The eureka moment for graphene came when
UCLA PhD student Maher El-Kady attached a small light
bulb to a graphene solar cell for two to three seconds under
intense brightness, and the bulb continued to emit light for
over five minutes after the external energy source had been
switched off. This demonstrated for the first time the supercapacitor qualities of graphene. This discovery may prove to
change the world significantly.

Figure 3: Short-listed emerging PV technologies and their disruptive potential
Record cell
efficiency to date

maximum efficiency




















Not yet officially



(Commercial c-Si)




Source: Arthur D. Little analysis


Ability to beat c-Si
in PV applications


Overall disruptive


Emerging Technologies in Solar PV

4. The top-three emerging PV
technologies of tomorrow
To recapitulate, we scrutinized each of seven selected emerging
PV technologies in consideration of their ability to:
1. Compete with c-Si within PV applications
2. Venture successfully into new applications outside of
the reach of c-Si.
Subsequently, our analysis suggests that: perovskite, quantumdot photovoltaics and concentrated photovoltaics are the most
potentially disruptive PV technologies in the coming 10–15

years.19 This is neither to undermine the daunting challenge of
beating c-Si (as it continues to break new records for higher
efficiencies), nor to say that these technologies are the ones
that we expect to see rising rapidly up the PV installed capacity
rankings in the next decade or so. Rather, these three, if given
sufficient R&D attention, have the highest potential to change
the PV game in the long term. They are all still in relatively
early lab stages (perovskite and quantum-dot more so than
concentrated photovoltaics), and require further dedicated
attention to bring them to mass production (Figure 3 and 4).

Figure 4: Disruptive potential vs. technological maturity of candidate disruptors

Disruptive Potential



Technological Maturity

R&D Stage:

Source: Arthur D. Little analysis



Pilot Line

N.B. Bubble size ∝ cross-industry applicability


Market Entry

19 Although we think graphene is a very exciting material and definitely one to watch in the future given the multitude of applications which it can supposedly dominate,
we concluded that at present the highly embryonic stages of its development, and the associated technological uncertainty, mean it cannot truly be said to be one of
the most potentially disruptive as yet.


Emerging Technologies in Solar PV

5. Cultivating potential winners – avoiding
the valleys of death
Defining and sizing the two valleys
A graphic put out by the US Department of Energy’s SunShot
Initiative (Figure 5) demonstrates the implications of the
belief that PV technologies with high disruptive potential have
been identified. The graphic shows the typical path that PV
technologies take from laboratory to fabrication, from high to
low technological risks, and the magnitude of related necessary
financial investments. Two zones of danger, or “valleys of death”
are highlighted.
1. The first is the prototyping valley of death:
–– Here, previously conceptual technology has made it to
the prototyping stage and government funding starts
to tail off as projects no longer qualify for conceptual
R&D grants. However, venture capitalists have yet to be
satisfied by the risk-return profile of the technology to
jump in and provide financial support.

–– SunShot suggests that this particular shortfall amounts
to ~$20mn for most PV technology development.
2. The second, and much more foreboding, valley of death
comes after the technology has been through the pilot
line but has yet to hit the production line. This is the
commercialization valley of death:
–– SunShot estimates this shortfall to be in the realm of

$50–100mn per PV technology.
–– t is where, for instance, CIGS nearly became extinct.
–– n order to traverse this chasm and to ensure that
promising technologies make it from “lab to fab”
governments and other potential financial donors must
exert more support to bring the technological potential to
market and convert pipeline dreams into mainline reality.

Figure 5: PV technology “lab-to-fab” pathway and “valleys of death”

Pilot Line


Market Entry

Financial Investment


investment level

Technological Maturity
investment level

Source: US Department of Energy – SunShot Initiative (Adapted simplification)


Prototyping “valley
of death”

“valley of death”

Emerging Technologies in Solar PV

6. Traversing the valleys of death
In order to traverse the valleys of death, besides providing
financial muscle to develop the technologies, an enlightened,
patient, long-term view is required in which concerned actors
do not cave in to external demands for short-term returns.
Doing so would result in the abandonment of fledgling, but
potentially game-changing, emerging PV technologies. Scientific
advancements of this scale often happen incrementally, so a
time horizon of five years or greater is necessary.

Role of emerging countries in overcoming valleys
of death
Until now, developed countries such as the US, Germany
and Japan have carried the bulk of the burden in developing
emerging PV technologies. That said, the current situation offers
a unique opportunity to emerging countries such as China, India
and the GCC (Gulf Co-operation Council) region, among others,
to share efforts towards the development of these promising
technologies. The emerging nations could play a pivotal role in
their R&D efforts in developing these technologies alongside
the increased investments earmarked for solar infrastructure
development. There is plenty of strong recent evidence
establishing the positive relationship between R&D activities
and the growth of total factor productivity of economies,
specifically for the ones in the GCC region.20 The knowledge
“spillovers” from engaging in high-tech R&D can greatly assist
the productivity of human capital and other assets, ultimately
driving growth of technologically intensive, “future proof” and
high value-added sectors of the economy. A prime example
of this is, of course, the development of silicon as a semiconductor material, which has had tremendous impact on the
computer and electronics industry.

R&D collaboration towards developing an innovation
Moving beyond a single-country model of PV R&D to a
model in which many countries pool resources into central,
elite developmental laboratories may be a route to more
rapid PV advancement. The benefits of such an international
resource-pooling framework would diversify the technological
and financial risk for any given country and foster synergies.
Examples of existing international collaborative research projects
are 1) SERIIUS (The Solar Energy Research Institute for India and
the United States), led by the Indian Institute of Science and the
NREL, and 2) EUREC (The Association of European Renewable

Energy Research Centers), an association of 43 renewable
energy R&D groups across Europe. The combination of such
borderless collaboration, with a competitive funding process as
adopted by the US Department of Energy, could prove to be a
powerful combination as the number of responding research
organizations increases, resulting in better-quality research
output and more rapid advancement.
An obvious candidate region for such a collaborative framework
or “innovation ecosystem” for R&D efforts is the GCC. The fact
that the Gulf countries not only are geographically clustered, but
also exhibit economic and social homogeneity and have similar
technical issues in deployment of solar energy (e.g. reduction of
module efficiencies due to dust and heat in the desert climate)
means that such cross-border collaboration should come
with relative ease. Furthermore, local research infrastructure
already exists in the field of solar energy, such as Masdar,
KAUST, KACST, and the Qatar Foundation. Considering also the
immense financial muscle of the region and recent intimations
of a hankering for scientific prowess,21 the GCC emerges
as a well-suited candidate for a central regional institute of
PV research, a network of PV-based research clusters, or a
combination thereof.
However, two key barriers exist to establishing the envisaged
“innovation ecosystem” in the GCC. Firstly, notwithstanding the
presence of research and academic institutions, the GCC is not
known for its venture capital and private equity establishments
– a key ingredient in the innovation ecosystem, a source of
efficient funding and an agent of entrepreneurship. Secondly,
an innovation ecosystem works well only when there is a
strong demand for its products and services. In this regard, the
GCC’s solar energy demand is limited compared to some other
developed and emerging markets, such as India and China.
Other options to develop an innovation ecosystem include:
ƒƒ artnerships with R&D wings of major global technology
companies and conglomerates (such as Samsung, GE,
Siemens, Sharp, Panasonic)
ƒƒ elocation of major research institutes to the GCC through
appropriate incentive mechanisms (such as Fraunhofer,
NREL, or major universities).
All such options and many more should be carefully explored
and pursued.


Emerging Technologies in Solar PV

Summary and conclusions
In summary, although c-Si is the dominant Solar PV technology today, it may not remain so forever. Instead, the emerging PV
technologies surveyed in this article could potentially disrupt and replace c-Si in the long term, depending on their ability to beat
c-Si within PV applications and their cross-industry applicability. We believe the most promising of these emerging technologies are
perovskite, quantum-dot photovoltaics, and concentrated photovoltaics.
However, there exist “valleys of death” (funding shortfalls) that imperil these emerging technologies. Although efforts such as the
SunShot initiative in the US are attempting to traverse these valleys of death by sponsoring, developing, and patenting the leading
PV technologies, further support from emerging markets that have the financial capacity would be extremely constructive. The GCC,
for example, is well positioned to become such a center for solar PV innovation.
There are different options for the funding of these research efforts, and we believe that one which utilizes 1) incentive-compatible,
technologically neutral funding methods (such as competitive funding opportunity announcements) and 2) cross-collaborative
synergies across research organizations (whether academic or industrial) are most effective.
The goal of mitigating a CIGS-style near-extinction of these other technologies represents a challenging but highly praiseworthy goal
for any willing and able sponsor. The stakes are too high; the world cannot afford to let emerging PV technologies go undeveloped.
The time to act is now.

20 Numerous recent scholarly articles address and confirm the positive relationship between R&D and total factor productivity. They include: “The impact of research
and development on economic growth: The case of the MENA countries” (2015) by Lamia Ben Amor and Naceur Ben Zina of the University of Economics and
Management of Sfax, Tunisia, “The modern drivers of productivity” (2014) by Francesco Venturini of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, London,
and “The Impacts of Research and Development Expenditures” (2011) by John J. Wetter of the University of Maryland.
21 For example, “Mission Hope” in the UAE, which aims to send an unmanned space probe to Mars by 2020. Further, KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and
Technology) in Saudi Arabia has one of the fastest-growing research and citation records of any university in the world, and the “Manama” project in Qatar aims to
develop a cutting-edge, secure computer model that could allow the use of sensitive data on untrusted platforms without any security risk.


If you would like more information or to arrange an informal discussion on the issues raised here and how they affect your business,
please contact:

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