Bifacial modules have long played the role of being one of the cooler exhibits at solar conferences, but in our experience to date, have failed to enter the market in a serious way. The panels capture energy on both sides of the module by capturing sunlight on the backside that was reflected off the surface the array is built on. The technology has shown promising data in laboratories, but has yet to justify itself to developers as being worth the extra yield for its high price tag, However, with the prospect of high tariffs on imports that may result from an injury finding in the Section 201 trade case, forced higher prices may have developers looking more closely at the extra yield these can provide. If tariffs are imposed, will it be bifacial modules’ time to shine?
Bifacial Modules Today: It’s Complicated
In controlled environments and in certain orientations, bifacial panels have been shown to increase panel production by as much as 50 percent. In the field, however, the added production has ranged from 5-30 percent, and is highly dependent on system design and site conditions. This variability is just one of many factors that have kept bifacial panels from making a serious dent in market share, which currently is less than 5 percent.
To put it simply, it’s hard to predict the energy the modules will produce. The factors that affect bifacial module energy production can seem endless. In addition to all of the environmental and system design factors that affect standard monofacial modules, things only get more complicated when you generate energy from the backside of the module as well.
We sat down with Kevin Mayer from our engineering team to get his perspective. According to Kevin, “for all of the factors we currently take into account in proving estimated energy production for standard monofacial modules to investors and customers, bifacial modules add even more to consider, and are highly sensitive to factors that have only a small effect on monofacial systems.”
What exactly are these factors? For one, the surface; new white roofs should reflect more than older dark roofs. Other variable may include weather (more snow will help reflect more irradiance), row spacing and module height (various layouts attempt to maximize reflected sunlight being captured), and racking (standard racking structures block some sunlight from hitting the backside of the modules). Together, these variables create several scenarios that make it hard to model accurate energy yield predictions.
Investors are comfortable with standardized and streamlined energy modeling practices for monofacial modules, so there will need be a new education process from engineers to financiers to communicate the risks and benefits of going bifacial while still maintaining the same low cost of capital available for monofacial projects.
To make matters more confusing, there is still no standardized method for rating nameplates of bifacial modules, making them more difficult to price. With much of the research into the technology staying proprietary, the required data is hard to find. These factors have led to bifacials becoming more of a niche product, typically at a higher price than monofacial modules. Yingli Green, Sunpreme and LG have all made efforts in the market, but have never manufactured bifacial modules on a large scale, another limit to the technology. For the high price, it just isn’t worth it yet for the larger market to cede cost for uncertain results. However, this could change with the trade case.
Bifacial Modules and Suniva’s Section 201 Case
Sure, bifacial modules carry a higher price tag than standard monofacial modules. However, if the price floors being requested in the trade petition are enacted on imports at 78 cent/Watt, all imported modules will essentially be sold above their current market value. The question may turn into “how much yield can I get for 78 cents?” Given that the nameplate rating of bifacial modules currently only considers the frontside power of the module, the extra energy production provided by the backside of the module gives bifacial modules a large value advantage in a high price floor world.
Bifacial modules, along with other high-efficiency crystalline-silicone modules that generally carry a high price tag, may face a more level playing field with their previously lower-priced counterparts if tariffs are enacted. The commercial and industrial (C&I) space, in general, has some economic breathing room (utility-scale solar, for instance, has tighter margins competing against the broader electricity market), and being that bifacial modules are largely C&I products, a 201 outcome that imposes tariffs should support momentum for bifacial modules. If upfront capital costs for a project increase or are partially fixed by a price floor, increasing the total energy provided by the project would be an effective way to lower the levelized cost of energy (LCOE). However, manufacturers of bifacial modules would certainly need to scale up to capture more of the market, something that has not yet begun.
“Section 201 tariffs by themselves will not cure bifacial technological and financial challenges,” suggests Joe Song, Director of Engineering at Sol Systems. “If enacted, the tariffs may add motivation and creativity within the industry, and give the industry more credence to take more risks in the name of enabling more projects under challenging economics.”
In any scenario, bifacial modules will continue to fascinate engineering geeks across the industry, including the ones that work for Sol Systems. Regardless of what happens with the trade case, increasing data will only aid the development of this technology as a more common market option.
This is an excerpt from the August 2017 edition of The SOL SOURCE, a monthly electronic newsletter analyzing the latest trends in renewable energy based on our unique position in the solar financing space. To view the full Journal, please subscribe or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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