When SolarCity, the fast-growing provider of rooftop solar electricity systems, announced last year that it would begin making its own equipment, executives said they would focus on creating high-efficiency panels in an effort to reduce the cost of the electricity they sell. Theyannounced on Friday that they had done just that, with a panel that converts more of the sun’s energy into electricity than competing products.
The company plans to start making the panel — whose output has been measured at more than 22 percent — this month at a small plant in Silicon Valley, said Peter Rive, a founder, but will eventually produce it at the enormous factory it is building in Buffalo.
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The move into manufacturing, a business that has proved deadly for many other upstart American solar companies, came with theacquisition of a start-up, Silevo, and is intended to help the company compete with conventional energy sources once generous federal subsidies begin to phase out at the end of next year.
Although 22 percent may not seem like a tremendous level of efficiency, the breakthrough for SolarCity is that it can produce the panels at a lower cost than it pays to buy standard models but get more electricity out of the same square footage, Mr. Rive said.
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“You’re talking about a 40 percent increase in efficiency at a lower cost,” he said. “We have to get solar energy to be cheaper than natural gas or coal, and these breakthroughs get us there.”
Solar panels convert only a fraction of the sun’s energy into electricity — the process is limited by a number of factors, including heat and shading. This year, three companies, including the Chinese giant Trina Solar, announced records in efficiency, all in the high teens. SunPower panels, which have achieved efficiencies of more than 21 percent, have generally been considered the most efficient, but SolarCity’s new modules will exceed that level, Mr. Rive said.
The company plans to begin using the panels primarily for rooftop installations for homes, schools and other buildings, but eventually plans to make them available for large-scale, ground-mounted installations. The panel’s design, which involves layers of different forms of silicon, could allow for the production of electricity on both sides, Mr. Rive said.