Increasing markets and decreasing package weight for high-specific-power photovoltaics


Thin-film and emerging technologies in photovoltaics (PV) offer advantages for lightweight, flexible power over the rigid silicon panels that dominate the present market. One important advantage is high specific power (the power-to-weight ratio). Here we consider niche market size, price points and value propositions that can provide a path for new PV market entrants. Examining the cost–production experience curves of Si, CdTe and CIGS PV suggests that a minimum market size of US$0.2–1 billion is required to incubate a new market entrant. Several markets requiring high specific power meet this threshold. We assess the critical role of the substrate, packaging and interconnects and provide a quantitative assessment of pathways to maximize specific power. With all requisite components included, along with requirements for safety and reliability, we estimate a lower bound for a durable lightweight module at about 300–500 g m−2. Pairing this bound with a 15%-efficiency thin-film or 35%-efficiency III–V module would yield specific powers up to 500 W kg−1 or 1,167 W kg−1, respectively.

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Fig. 1: Projected market size as a function of price per watt.
Fig. 2: Historic experience curve and integrated experience curve for gigawatt-scale PV technologies.
Fig. 3: Specific power as a function of AM1.5G module efficiency.
Fig. 4: Contribution of various packaging components to areal density.
Fig. 5: Contributions to the areal density of the cell layers comprising each solar cell technology.
Fig. 6: Impact of interconnects on areal density.

Data availability

The majority of data that support the plots presented in this paper and the calculated values presented in this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request. The market data from SPV Market Research is the only exception. The corresponding author can provide contact information for SPV for the acquisition of those datasets.


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We thank A. Hicks for his assistance in making the graphics more appealing and C. Wolden for insight into the discussions and structure of the manuscript. This work was supported by the US Department of Energy under contract number DE-AC36-08-GO28308 with Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC, manager and operator of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Funding was provided by the US Office of Naval Research as well as through the Lab Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program at NREL. The views expressed in the article do not necessarily represent the views of the DOE or the US Government.

Author information




M.O.R., T.M.B. and N.M.H. posed the initial research questions and framed the analysis. M.O.R., S.G. and S.B. performed strategic niche market analysis. M.O.R., S.G., D.F. and N.M.H. performed the historical market analysis. M.O.R., S.G., D.L.M., T.M.B. and N.M.H. analysed the state-of-the-art high-specific-power PV market. M.O.R., S.G., D.L.M. and M.D.K. bounded, described and provided examples of the elements of PV packaging. M.O.R., S.G., D.L.M. and M.S.D. calculated the effects of interconnects. M.O.R., S.G., M.D.K. and N.M.H. led the writing of the manuscript with all other authors contributing.

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Correspondence to Matthew O. Reese.

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Supplementary Data 1

Details of the technology, efficiency, specific power and references used to produce Fig. 3

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Reese, M.O., Glynn, S., Kempe, M.D. et al. Increasing markets and decreasing package weight for high-specific-power photovoltaics. Nat Energy 3, 1002–1012 (2018).

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