Interview with Professor Eicke Weber, Intersolar North America's conference committee chair

Professor Eicke R. Weber. Fraunhofer ISE
Professor Eicke R. Weber. Fraunhofer ISE

Intersolar North America Conference Committee Chair Professor Eicke R. Weber is also director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE) and professor of Physics and Applied Sciences at the Albert-Ludwig University of Freiburg, Germany. The ISE institute is one of the world-leading research institutes in the field of renewable energy and energy efficiency. 

In Solar Server's Interview Prof. Weber talks about technology and market developments and the Intersolar North America Conference program.

Solar Server: Can you please tell us about the Intersolar North America 2010 conference and how it has changed from last year's conference?

Prof. Weber: This year’s exhibition has again grown at an impressive rate. There are almost 30 percent more exhibitors in 2010. The exhibition currently features more than 570 exhibitors and a further 120 plus PV exhibitors with SEMICON West Intersolar North America fills up all three levels of Moscone West, more than 130,000 net square feet, and that does not include the various programs taking place within the building lobbies, etc. We expect more than 20,000 solar professionals to walk the floor this year and our conference should see more than 1,600 attendees. We expect the conference to be a big hit.

Solar Server: How did you get involved with Intersolar and specifically Intersolar North America?

Prof. Weber: I spent 23 years at the University of California at Berkeley during which time I served as a professor of materials science and, most recently, chair of the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Graduate Group. While I was at UC Berkeley I became involved in the SEMI PV Group and then moved to Freiburg in 2006 to take the position of director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE), in Freiburg. I was then first introduced with Intersolar while it was still only in Europe and we began working together shortly thereafter.

My existing relationship with SEMI offered the perfect opportunity to put the two groups together. What was apparently right from the start is the amount of synergies they had with one another and how the two complemented each other within different areas of solar energy; Intersolar more manufacturer and integrator centric, with project developers, distributors and installers at the visitor base, while SEMI PV Group is focused on the materials and equipment aspects. Suggesting Intersolar to move the show to the United States and to co-locate it with SEMICON West was a winning proposition. Based on my experience and industry knowledge, I was asked to chair the conference, which I graciously accepted and continue to enjoy working on today. In 2008, I was also asked to join the SEMI International Board of Directors.

Solar Server: What are some of the more compelling industry trends you have seen this year?

Prof. Weber: PV is already reaching grid parity in more and more regions worldwide. As an example, in California the cost of PV generated electricity is today already below the cost of electricity when using a time-of-use rate. What’s more, we have seen a roughly 30% cost reduction in all technologies across the board, which is a great help to bringing down the cost for actually producing the electricity when factoring in system costs.  It will take another 10-15 years until PV-generated electricity is cost competitive with fossil and nuclear electricity. Just imagine, in 2010 alone we will install worldwide about 10 GW of additional PV power, to be compared with the 20 GW installed in the last 20 years.

On the technology side, concentrating PV is getting to a point where it’s cost competitive with solar thermal electricity. Chevron, in fact, is now about to have a megawatt installation in place, which will be the first big CPV installation worldwide. On the equipment side, inverter efficiency is increasing. These new inverters help minimize the cost the individual pays.

Actually, there are significant balance-of-system cost advantages in Germany that we might be able to bring to California if we are able to get efficient market introduction programs like in Germany.

Impressions from Intersolar North America 2009
Impressions from Intersolar North America 2009
courtesy: Solar Promotion GmbH
courtesy: Solar Promotion GmbH

Solar Server: What other changes do you see on the horizon for the solar industry?

Prof. Weber: It may sound cliché, but bringing down the cost has been and will continue to be a major trend. This is where manufacturing efficiency is most important. We are seeing new technologies making the wafers thinner and the cells more efficient, thereby making them cheaper to produce. Another innovative segment is in coatings where we are seeing new technologies help the panels absorb more sunlight for longer in the day to produce more electricity.

Another way to bring down the costs, aside from the technology, is with policy. Solar is still an industry that needs support from the government, especially in the United States. This support is mainly needed to help put the electric produced into the grid. I am a staunch supporter of offering all producers of renewable electric energy an attractive price for feeding electricity to the grid, a feed-in tariff. As many people know, the German solar market is based on the FiT and has seen tremendous results. Other markets such as Spain and Italy have followed suit and have seen promising results. California is considering a FiT and I think this would be the most beneficial thing to help continue to stimulate the market there and provide an example for how other regions or states could implement one.

Solar Server: What are some of the most interesting technology developments visitors will see at this year's Intersolar?

Prof. Weber: This year, thin film PV based on First Solar’s CdTe thin film technology has seen the most rapid growth, as it is the leader in reducing the price of PV power. Similarly, concentrated solar thermal power generation is experiencing a lot of interest, especially as it offers quite effective energy storage in the form of molten salt solutions. However, the growth of crystalline Si PV has been breathtaking as well.

There are quite a few small start-ups with innovative PV technologies, and in the coming years we will watch a shakeout of those that cannot sustain the breathtaking market development.

Solar Server: Can you tell us about the different conference tracks you have this year? Which ones do you think is a 'must-attend'?

Prof. Weber: The Intersolar North America conference offers attractive tracks for attendees experienced in solar technologies and those who are new to the field. Especially for the newcomers to the field, I would highly recommend the tracks on global technology and market trends, where the issues of market introduction policies will be discussed as well. In each of the technology tracks there are excellent overviews presented that will allow even newcomers to quickly get familiar with the most current technologies. The specialists will find a wide range of interesting talks presenting technology updates by leaders in their respective fields.

Solar Server: Any closing thoughts as to the future of the solar industry and the role of Intersolar?

Prof. Weber: We are just at the beginning of the growth of the global solar industry. I like to compare the current market with the automotive market in 1905: the key technologies have been developed, but rapid cost reduction will open up markets that are 10 times and more larger than what we have today. Intersolar Europe, the world's largest exhibition for the solar industry, and Intersolar North America will play a vital role in this development. I am especially pleased that we succeeded together with SEMICON West to anchor Intersolar North America in San Francisco, right in the sunny state of California.

Solar Server: Thanks a lot for these insights, Prof. Weber!

Solar Server Interviewer: Christian Roselund