V3Solar has made waves in the cleantech press over the last few weeks with its Spin Cell prototype. With claims of levelized cost of energy (LCOE) around $0.08 per watt (as reported by CleanTechnica), this system would shatter current records for solar power cost effectiveness, prompting the question: does the Spin Cell actually work as well as advertised?
First, a brief primer on the technology. The Spin Cell bucks the traditional flat solar panel design: it’s a conical device that spins. The cone shape, which resembles an Apollo-era space capsule, allows for greater exposure to the sun, without active tracking. The self-contained unit, based on traditional concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) cells, also has magnifying lenses on its exterior surface that increase the light to each of the individual solar panels. However, in conventional solar arrays, increased solar radiation raises the temperature of the cells themselves, decreasing efficiency or, ultimately, destroying the unit. V3Solar claims that the spinning unit’s motion keeps the surface of the PV cells cool (only slightly above ambient temperature), thus maintaining efficiency.
V3Solar hired Bill Rever, a solar industry veteran, to perform a technical review of the device. While Rever thoroughly explains the concepts of the technology, as well as the economic implications, the term “technical review” is a bit of misnomer. Essentially, Rever restates the tests that were run by Nectar Design on the prototype, without offering any new information. The results of the tests indicate that the temperature on the Spin Cell remains lower than the flat panel control, but they don’t detail its power production. Most importantly, the CPV yields have not been empirically proven in this design.
Hyping the Spin
Still, the hype that the Spin Cell has created is justified. The technology is interesting, but the business case for the Spin Cell is the real draw. An $0.08 per watt LCOE would make it one of the cheapest forms of electricity, even compared to coal and natural gas. Like most things in the energy industry, if the economics work out, the technology will prevail. Programs like feed-in tariffs (FITs) and renewable portfolio standards (RPSs) help support nascent green technologies, but the ideal goal is for those technologies to thrive without government intervention. If the Spin Cell works as V3Solar says it does, V3Solar will have accomplished what no other photovoltaic company has: creating a carbon-free, economically competitive means of energy production.
If proven, the technology would not only permit inexpensive and clean generation, but would also free up significant governmental funds dedicated to making solar more economically attractive. For example, the solar Residential Renewable Energy and Business Energy Investment tax credits, in the United States, would be rendered obsolete, increasing available government funds for more advanced energy technologies such as bioenergy and marine hydrokinetic technology. Similarly, Germany’s FIT would be able to ramp down quicker than planned, while Japan’s new FIT would become unnecessary.
The Spin Cell eventually will have to prove itself in the only testing environment that matters: the open market.