Interview with Professor Joachim Luther

Professor Joachim Luther has spent over 30 years engaging in the physics and the development of renewable energies and is currently working at Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore (SERIS).

Q. How has the turmoil in the global solar PV market since SERIS’ inauguration in April 2008 impacted the institute and its work on technology innovation?

Ans. A lot has happened since 2008 and while it has been a very challenging situation for the industry, SERIS has met this challenge and helped the companies it works with to adapt and, more crucially, to continue to innovate. Module prices have declined, so all new technologies are under pressure and must either cost significantly less or perform significantly better to make any headway in this market. As an indication, three years ago, SERIS had a focus on thin film technology, but this is emphasised far less now as a result of the large falls in silicon wafer technology prices. Silicon wafer based modules are strongly in place, and while SERIS is investigating a range of technologies, the near future is likely to be more evolutionary than disruptive.

There are still good reasons to work on thin film–in fact SERIS is–but the efficiency has to be improved beyond 12 percent.

There is considerable interest globally in optically concentrating photovoltaic devices with unit cell efficiency greater than 40 percent and system efficiency of 25-30 percent. However the application of such technologies is limited to regions with a high fraction of direct (beam) solar radiation, thus it is not suitable for the tropics.

In general, any new material and system must beat the cost of silicon wafer technology, i.e. 1 Euro/watt in modules or 2 Euros/watt in systems. While there is a plethora of novel ideas, for the moment silicon wafer PV remains the proven, dominant technology.

With respect to emerging technologies this is in some ways reminiscent of the substitution of thermionic valve (vacuum tube) technology by semiconductor technology in electronics, which was not an overnight phenomenon. The decade-long process also saw considerable innovation in valve technology before the new semiconductors overtook it.

SERIS, exploiting Singapore’s position as a “living laboratory” at the heart of the equatorial sunbelt, seeks to become a regional powerhouse for solar technology. What developments have there been to establish this leadership and when do you expect to see PV reaching grid parity in Singapore?

Q. SERIS, exploiting Singapore’s position as a “living laboratory” at the heart of the equatorial sunbelt, seeks to become a regional powerhouse for solar technology. What developments have there been to establish this leadership and when do you expect to see PV reaching grid parity in Singapore?

Ans. Technology development in photovoltaics is global, and SERIS works with global companies, mainly pursuing the aim of reduced cost and greater efficiency. But the location is a unique selling point, so SERIS can investigate, for example, modules for the tropics, looking at aspects like quality assurance under the high temperature and humidity that characterise tropical conditions. While the main focus is on solar PV, SERIS is also researching unconventional solar energy powered air–conditioning systems for the tropics.

With respect to solar achieving grid parity in Singapore, this calls for crystal ball gazing, but certainly within this decade and probably within two-to-four years from now. However, attaining grid parity alone will not guarantee explosive market growth. Under the condition of pure market forces the cost of solar–generated electricity must be lower than that of the other generators’ to lead to a strong uptake.

Q. Which Asian countries/regions are leading the continent’s drive in solar?

Ans. In terms of non-industrial R&D and technology development, Japan and Singapore lead the way in Asia, although significant investments are being made in the technology in China. In terms of the industry itself, excluding China, considerable progress is being seen in Malaysia, India and Singapore. With respect to installations and market growth, Thailand, China, India and Malaysia are starting to ramp up a strong market. All these countries have established feed-in-tariff (FiT) or net metering schemes. China’s manufacturing scale is well-recognised, but it is also installing significant capacity despite a relatively low FiT. Estimates put this years installed capacity at 2GW, rising to 4-5GW next year. The Chinese government is dedicated to seeing a greater contribution from solar.

Q. Are grid integration technologies keeping pace with the growth in solar and other renewables? Is the smart grid ready for fluctuating renewables?

Ans. The technology is available today, and already Germany’s grid can handle 20 percent of renewable electricity. Smart grid technology is essential, but many countries lack it. Load management is a vital element of smart grids, so the impact on solar PV output under highly variable weather can be compensated for by cutting back the air conditioning in offices for an acceptable time span, for example.

SERIS is working on model studies on how to add more renewable energy to the Singapore grid, undertaking ”yes or no” studies looking in particular for ”showstoppers”. Singapore looks good to handle 15-20 percent of solar electricity, in the long run possibly as much as 25 percent.

Q. What are the prospects for an Asia-Pacific Super Grid?

Ans. Like Desertec in EMEA, the Asia-Pacific Super Grid is a good idea, technologically possible, but difficult to implement politically. However, it makes a lot of sense and it should be built within the next 30-40 years, possibly even in 20 years’ time. It is interesting to think that a telegraph cable was laid between Darwin, Australia, and Singapore in 1872–so it can be done again, this time exchanging electricity from renewable sources between Asian-Pacific counties. This will activate huge resources of sustainable energy and will level out short term and seasonal variations in local renewable energy generation.


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