DSC in the Competitive PV Marketplace08 Nov 2011 • by Natalie Aster
Although early proponents of dye-sensitized cells (DSC) dreamed of a future in which DSC would compete primarily on cost, it now seems that this future is unlikely to come about. As far as we can tell, First Solar is today's cost leader in the PV space and the company's CdTe panels also perform better than DSC. Since the end of the silicon shortage, crystalline-silicon PV costs have fallen considerably and may even eventually approach the inorganic thin films in terms of cost.
As a result, NanoMarkets believes, DSC now has a limited amount of time to prove itself as a low-cost PV technology with reasonable claims to performance. As we discuss in depth below, in the past couple of years DSC firms have been showing performance that brings them close to a-Si PV. But the prospects for radical cost reduction look less hopeful and the manufacturers of other PV technologies are encroaching on the sub-$1 per watt "territory" DSC once assumed that it and pure OPV would own.
While there has been significant investment in the DSC space in the recent past, the capital expenditures in DSC have been low compared to that in the inorganic PV space. There are also few prospects of some great leap forward in DSC performance. Therefore, DSC, it seems, must dream up a new raison d'etre if it is to be successful.
As a result, DSC firms are beginning to shift their attention to new applications where DSC's capabilities can be effectively sold. Several firms are seeing an opportunity in the DSC space, stemming from the fact that DSC can perform reasonably well in conditions of low light. Much the same thing can also be said about OPV, but OPV performance seems stuck well below that of DSC; advantage DSC. At the same time, none of the standard inorganic approaches to PV can claim to the same degree the low-light advantage mentioned above; advantage DSC again.
This is, of course, a performance advantage, and doesn't define a market. So far, DSC has mostly been used in commercial products mainly in the form of solar chargers. This is potentially a high gross-margin product, but not one that consumes much DSC material in volume terms. The hope for DSC seems mostly to be found in certain BIPV niches, if the firms actively involved in the DSC space are to be believed.
Dye Sensitized Cells: Materials, Applications and Opportunites - 2011
Published: April 2011
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DSC Industry Developments since Last Year
DSC benefits from trends and factors that drive the PV market as a whole. One of these, of course, is the economy, which seems to be getting better worldwide. However, there are numerous economic uncertainties, which could well throw the PV business back into a slump again. In particular, with a few exceptions the residential and commercial property market worldwide is in poor shape and construction is a prime factor determining the size of the PV market.
There are also some positive signs for PV. Ironically, the PV industry can expect to be a beneficiary of anti-nuclear feelings following the disasters in Japan. While DSC is nowhere close to being able to provide the utility-scale PV that might be able to serve as an alternative to nuclear power, we expect anti-nuclear power sentiments, the desires of more homeowners to use renewable energy, and a desire to be off the grid, to benefit the PV industry.
To the extent that DSC becomes BIPV-oriented, this trend should provide specific benefits to DSC. In any case, this new trend is very different from our expectations for the PV industry from last year. As the saying has it, "It's an ill wind that does no one any good!" And DSC now faces a more vibrant market in 2011 and 2012 than it has for several years.
DSC Gains in Credibility, Sales and Big Company Support
The DSC business of a few years ago consisted largely of a small family of players circled round Dyesol as the major supplier of materials. While DSC got an early boost from some big names—such as Sharp and Panasonic—embracing the technology to some extent, the interest of such companies seemed to wane fairly fast.
However, we have begun to see something of a resurgence of interest in DSC, reflected in a growing number of alliances being formed in this space. There are also signs of new materials suppliers emerging. For example, in 2010, Solaronix launched industrial production of some of its products, and the company claims to have lowered prices by 10—20 percent due to lower-cost manufacturing.
All this shows not just increased credibility for DSC technology, but an effective strategy for building a future DSC industry at a time when capital is not easy to obtain. What also speaks well for the future of DSC is the appearance of firms such as BASF and Merck in this space as DSC materials suppliers. No one thinks that such firms are going to put DSC at the forefront of their business development strategies, but the fact that they continue to support DSC, shows that they see reasonable profits flowing from their efforts.
Dyesol still remains something of a bellwether of the DSC industry, even though it remains a tiny company, when judged by the usual standards applied to public companies. And here, recent events must be judged encouraging for DSC. The company was, for example, able to increase its sales of DSC products from A$2.5 million in fiscal 2009 to A$3.1 million in fiscal 2010 and raised A$12.0 million in equity in June 2010.
In addition, a project that Dyesol has been pursuing with Corus (now part of the giant Indian company, Tata Steel) seems to be going well. As part of this project, it has just started on a new ?11-million project to develop continuous manufacturing for a DSC-on-steel product for roofing markets. Although some of the money for this project is coming from the Welsh Assembly Government, the fact that a firm the size of Tata Steel continues to make a commitment to such products suggests that DSC as a BIPV technology has gotten the attention of a firm that can exercise real leadership in the BIPV space.
Much the same thing can be said about Dyesol's alliance with Pilkington in the BIPV glass business. And when, in late 2010, Dyesol and Umicore signed a letter of intent for Umicore to develop, produce, scale, and market ruthenium-based dyes and other metallic-based chemicals for DSC, it was yet another sign that large and influential companies are willing to risk getting into the DSC space.
Future Applications for DSC
In the analysis we stress the big opportunity for DSC right now is to make the transition from small solar chargers and consumer items to BIPV. However, we believe that there are other applications from which DSC will be able to generate worthwhile revenues.
The power of signs: The development of DSC is of great interest to some segments of the signage market, especially as DSC becomes longer-lived and more stable when exposed to the elements. The segments where DSC is most likely to succeed are those for smaller, low-powered signs and for signs that need to be powered by indoor ambient light. And the largest segment of the signage market open to DSC is in small indoor retail displays such as electronic shelf labels and other point-of-purchase displays.
PV anywhere: textiles, clothing and tarps: Current flexible PV products are still rather stiff in comparison to most textiles and fabrics; when applied to textiles they generally form an attached "module" that is more rigid than the rest of the fabric. This is how PV-powered, flexible products like tents and umbrellas are currently formed. Softer modules would obviously make for more versatile PV textiles, and this is a closer opportunity for DSC (and OPV) than for the inorganic thin-films.
PV-powered clothing-for charging devices or with other kinds of electronic functionality—seems likely to be the largest application, and a generation of flexible PV-powered bags or flexible "skins" could also emerge. Also likely is the emergence of a new, compact form of emergency power; PV panels that can be folded and stored until they are needed.
Other applications: In mentions by some DSC firms, NanoMarkets sees the beginnings of other applications. Dyesol is working with BAE on "flexible products for surveillance," suggesting a future role of DSC in large-area sensors. SolarPrint is also planning DSC power for sensors.
And both Dyesol and SolarPrint are looking at ways that DSC could be sold into the automotive area. In particular, SolarPrint entered a €3-million project with Fiat in July 2010, funded by the European Commission, to develop DSC-powered rooftop integrated panels for automobiles.
More information can be found in the report “Dye Sensitized Cells: Materials, Applications and Opportunites - 2011” by NanoMarkets.
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