Benchmark costs for five solar PV module technologies

NREL lightweight CIGS
This lightweight CIGS photovoltaic cell, on flexible stainless steel, was made by Matthew Reese and his team at NREL. Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL

In Photovoltaic Module Technologies: 2020 Benchmark Costs and Technology Evolution Framework Results, NREL researchers calculate a minimum sustainable price (MSP)—the price necessary to support a sustainable business over the long term—for solar modules. Specifically, the report calculates that price by using bottom-up manufacturing cost analysis and applying a gross margin of 15%.

This report benchmarks three established, mass-produced PV technologies as well as two promising technologies that are currently under development or in pilot production.

Crystalline silicon (c-Si) dominates the current PV market, and its MSPs are the lowest—$0.25–$0.27/watt across the c-Si technologies analyzed. Cadmium telluride (CdTe) modules have a slightly higher MSP ($0.28/watt), and the copper indium gallium (di)selenide (CIGS) MSP takes a still bigger step up ($0.48/watt), largely as a result of higher labor, equipment, and facility costs. The report provides technology road maps for additional MSP reductions.

The prices of c-Si and CdTe modules remain similar to each other over the short and long term, whereas the CIGS premium shrinks, but the cost differential remains significant.

The two developing technologies the report considers are III-V and perovskite PV technologies.

At $77/watt, the III-V MSP benchmark is much higher than the benchmarks for established technologies, which has kept III-V PV technology in niche markets, such as space and terrestrial concentrator applications. This challenge is reflected in the III-V road map, in which several potential cost reductions still result in a long-term projection of $20/watt—two orders of magnitude higher than the long-term MSPs of the other technologies. However, III-V modules could still be worth pursuing because they are the highest-efficiency PV products on the market. The current highest research-cell efficiency is 47.1% for a multijunction III-V device, and even higher efficiencies are possible.

This report represents NREL’s first techno-economic assessment of perovskite PV modules. The estimated MSP for a single-junction sheet-to-sheet perovskite module at a small production scale is $0.38/watt, with potential cost reductions projected to reduce the MSP over the long term to $0.18/watt, assuming performance can be improved without driving up costs.

Perovskites can also be combined with other PV technologies in multijunction configurations. This report estimates an MSP of $0.31/watt for perovskite-on-Si tandem modules in early production based on pilot production results.

Cost reductions from economies of scale as production grows and the accumulation of manufacturing experience are also important, but they are not included in NREL’s cost-reduction road maps. Other important module price drivers not captured in in this analysis include global supply and demand fluctuations, domestic policies related to PV deployment and manufacturing, trade policies, and corporate strategies. Comparing the bottom-up module MSP results with module market prices, however, helps clarify the effects of these other drivers.

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