How the new generation of 500 W panels will shape the solar industry

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From pv magazine USA

There are two solar module manufacturers, Risen Energy and Trina Solar, that have unveiled first-of-their kind 500 W, 72-cell PV modules.

How will the advent of 500 W PV modules change the solar industry?

“For applications where you have a lot of area, particularly commercial and especially utility-scale, it’s really significant,” Cinnamon Energy Systems CEO Barry Cinnamon told pv magazine. “You could just use fewer modules – it reduces handling costs and overall balance-of-system costs go down.”

If there are less modules needed to reach the capacity specifications of a project, that means overall project costs will go down as these modules become economically viable. A significant area that will see cost reduction will come from racking and trackers.

“It’s going to drive down the cost of racks and trackers per module,” said Matt Kesler, head of technology at OMCO Solar, an Arizona-based racking and fixed tilt tracking manufacturer. “It’ll reduce the cost per watt of installation labor. It’s also going to give a premium on racks and trackers that are designed for ergonomics. As these things get bigger they’re going to get heavier and wider. If there are features in the trackers and racks that assist in the placement of the modules, that’s going to have more value.”

The consensus among the installers interviewed by pv magazine was that the average module installed checks in at 380 W. This means that Trina and Risen’s panels deliver around 31% more power than the average installed panel. Cinnamon said that 10 years ago, the average module output was about 250 W.

As neat as that calculation is, these panels have a long way to go until they are industry standards, let alone benchmarks for the average installation.

“It takes about five years for the industry to change all of its assembly equipment to a new size,” said Cinnamon. “It’s a lot of work to buy new equipment because often it can’t be reprogrammed … We’re talking three to five years to change out all of that equipment.”

“The most common sector is going to be C&I,” said Jock Patterson of Fronius USA, an inverter company. “I see these on rooftops where space is limited and they want higher efficiency modules. Large suppliers are going to feel the pressure to supply an inverter that’s 1,500 volts. Those who aren’t providing that are going to feel like they’re missing out on those larger rooftop projects.”

That change will not be industry-wide. The residential solar market will see little direct impact as these modules become commercially available – as 72-cell modules have always been too large to be practical for home installations where roof space is limited, work spaces are angled and workers have to be able to carry the modules individually up ladders. Anything beyond the standard 1-meter by 1.6-meter 60-cell module is too cumbersome.

The hope for the residential installers that pv magazine spoke with was that the technologies used to get these modules to 500 W will eventually trickle down to their 60-cell brethren. In turn, this would mean that residential installations would be able to take up less roof area while providing more power, ultimately driving down balance-of-system costs.

Risen claims that it could easily reach 600 Wp of output with a 60-cell panel.

By Tim Sylvia