Q&A: Louise Jones talks solar energy

Materials World magazine
7 May 2014

Louise Jones, technology Translator at the Electronics, Sensors and Photonics KTN, talks to Melanie Rutherford about the UK solar industry.


Tell me a bit about your background in the industry.

The majority of my academic experience has been industrially focused on materials in some way. My MSc focused on synthesis of monomers for low band gap semiconducting polymers and my PhD was part of the Knowledge Transfer Partnership programme, which meant that my work was always oriented towards commercial applications. The project focused on natural products and combinatorial chemistry, which at the time was seen as the way forward for drug discovery, with high throughput of new compound production. The diversity of my research projects led me to my first role as a research assistant on commercial projects, ranging from animal by-products to polymers to automotive applications. I later went on to become a coatings and production manager for catalytic converters. I was lured back into academia to manage a project involving businesses working in optoelectronics, in Wales, and I guess this is where my career in photonics – and solar in particular – really began.  

How have you seen the UK solar industry change?

The solar industry has been no stranger to challenges over the past five years. In fact, it is rare to see a market that has been through so many trying and turbulent times. The first feed-in tariff (FiT) level was, in my opinion, way too high, so the industry boomed. When the budget ran out, it slumped, causing businesses to fold. The last three years have seen the price of an installed system fall by 50%, driven by a drop in module and production costs. Domestic customers can have a system fitted for typically £5,500– 6,500 and payback, even with the lower FiT, is seven to eight years.

In the UK, how does solar currently compare to other renewable energy sources?
Public perception of solar is good, much better than that of wind energy, although we still need to inform people that the UK has sufficient sunlight to make solar viable. Photovoltaics (PV) are cheaper than offshore wind and far easier to install, service and maintain than any other renewable.

How does the UK solar industry compare with that elsewhere in the world?

It has always surprised me that people assume the UK is not suitable for solar. The misconception is that there needs to be full sun every day in order for the system to work, but the UK has similar daily light levels to northern Germany, where PV has been fully embraced as a technology. There are some great examples of sustainable communities in Europe and a few examples are now emerging in the UK. I love the idea that a community is responsible for its own energy – I think giving people control is a great way to educate them that our current energy stocks won’t last forever.

What are currently the most important materials involved in solar PV?

Crystalline silicon remains the strongest candidate for solar PV globally, with the use of polycrystalline increasing from 52% to 64% over the past three years. I think other materials will become more important in the future, with building-integrated photovoltaics and niche applications of PV.

What are the main challenges currently facing the sector?

I think there are two key areas that provide the biggest challenges with PV. First, meeting demand is heavily reliant on feedstocks of silicon that will not last forever. Approaches in thin-film PV are aimed at creating thinner layers to reduce the amounts of rare earth metals and other less abundant materials, such as tellerium. Secondly, storage of PV will greatly improve uptake, therefore creating novel batteries that can store energy derived from PV for use at night will have a significant advantage for the sector.

How is the recent UK Solar PV Roadmap looking to address these challenges?
I hope the roadmap will provide DECC with key action points to incorporate in Government strategy that will best help the UK to take advantage of the significant benefits this sector provides to industry. The solar supply chain is diverse and the UK is unlikely to compete with the mass manufacturing capacity of other countries, but the roadmap identifies where the UK has key competencies above anywhere else in the world. I hope that with Government support and intervention, such as funding initiatives from the likes of the TSB and EPSRC, we can accelerate in both academia and industry.

What are the industry’s main targets?
The main target for the whole industry is 2020, and the roadmap outlines areas where we can act now to help the UK achieve the emissions targets. The Roadmap suggests six key focus areas that will expand on the UK industry strengths in manufacturing, engineering and R&D. In a nutshell, these are module technology and manufacturing, grid connection and infrastructure, PV installations, product confidence and reliability, public perception, education and training and, lastly, policy.

Are there any R&D projects underway that have the potential to transform the UK solar market?
It is hard for me not to be biased here, as I am a visiting research fellow with Glyndwr University, and its Centre for Solar Energy Research is involved in three projects that I think can have a significant impact on the UK solar market. Firstly, they are looking at in-line process developments for cadmium telluride PV production with the aim of producing mini 30x30 modules. I am not aware of anywhere else in the UK that is looking at how to commercialise production in this way. Secondly, the centre is looking into how to apply its technology to produce PV on materials that would be suitable for space applications, which is a new area of research but has significant market potential. Lastly (and probably my favourite, as it links two photonics-based technologies in one) is their work on lighting and use of PV by direct current – again, an area that I think has huge market potential in the UK.

What can the UK materials community do to help the sector grow further?

We have a strong research base for developing PV materials in the UK and more research funding can only bolster this. However, linking these communities to end applications is crucial in allowing the UK to better exploit its expertise. I think we will see the future of PV materials incorporated into the framework of buildings, as well as in interior and consumer product applications. These are areas where the UK has considerable strength and I think our materials community can be world leading in these areas.

For more information, email Louise Jones, louise.jones@ktn-uk.org