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Lights on organic photovoltaics

OPV solar panels and the development of solar energy in Europe.

by Maria Pia Rossignaud
23 July 2020
8 min read
byMaria Pia Rossignaud
23 July 2020
8 min read

Solar energy is one of the safest renewable sources. There are, however, some factors that prevent it from becoming more widespread, for example, the silicon panels used to capture heat and turn it into electricity are not cheap or easy to dispose of. That's why a new technology, Organic PhotoVoltaics (OPV) has been developed in recent years. This is based on polymers and other organic photoactive components that can be made into very thin, flexible, light slivers of plastic and installed practically anywhere.

Photoactive components are printed on transparent panels using the rotogravure method, the same method used for magazines and newspapers. The printed sequence is about as wide as a micron and can be transported in rolls, like paper. Its most obvious advantages are in its practical uses. There are no limits to the size of the film, as the printing process can be easily adapted to fit the required measurements. Also, the flexibility, lightweight and robustness of the material allow it to be used on any surface, from building walls to inflatable balls. We haven't just plucked that last example out of thin air. Many inflatable ball makers are developing OPV technology for insulation or emergency protection, for areas which are particularly difficult to reach with traditional electricity infrastructure. By applying the film to inflatable structures, it would be possible to air-drop small photovoltaic installations into areas that are not connected to the electricity grid, following incidents or disasters for example. This would make it possible to power lighting, diagnostic systems and emergency radios or telephones.

A future full of benefits

Its practical advantages have led leading companies, universities and research institutions to invest in OPV. The advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) means photovoltaic receptors can be built into the structural elements of buildings (bricks, roof and floor tiles and other structures, such as acoustic barriers or any surfaces that are exposed to light), which opens up a whole range of interesting and innovative possibilities. This concept, called Building-integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV), will enable buildings to achieve levels of energy efficiency that are still unimaginable today and at a much lower cost.

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Eni’s OPV project: the sustainable lightness of energy

As an example, it's worth noting that one kilogramme of crystalline silicon is enough to produce just over 2 square metres of solar panels, while the same quantity of organic material used in OPV is enough to cover an entire football pitch with solar panels. Also, the metal and glass panels that are currently used with silicon cells require supports that are strong enough to hold their weight and must be installed facing south and at the correct angle. If the panels are not installed in this way, it is a waste of time (and money) because they won't be able to produce adequate amounts of electricity. As mentioned previously, this means the installation and maintenance costs of this type of system are relatively high. OPV overcomes these limitations because the flexibility of the material makes installation much simpler and, above all, it is efficient at producing electricity even when light is diffused, regardless of the direction it is facing. OPV film works with cloudy skies and in low-light conditions, meaning it can harness light continuously from sunrise to sunset.

Unfortunately, OPV technology is still in its infancy and the developmental stage, so its large scale application is not yet a reality. At the moment, its main limitation is its energy yield. To date, Organic Electronic Technologies (OET) holds the record for the highest yield. This research and development team, supported by SmartLine (a consortium of 4 European Union countries, including Italy, and innovator in manufacturing and technologies for flexible organic electronics) recorded a power conversion efficiency of 7.4% for a "fully Roll-to-Roll (R2R) printed polymer-based single junction OPV (Organic Photovoltaic) cell". The OET team is aiming for 9% efficiency in OPV cells by 2021, along with other ongoing projects. This innovative work has been well received as many countries, and the European Union, in particular, have moved to pursue "green" policies. With this shift, there has been a significant increase in economic incentives. By looking at the figures from 2019 annual financial statements, we can see a very significant increase in the percentages of solar energy production.

A strong cohesion in support of renewables

This significant growth in renewable energy is undoubtedly a result of Europe beginning to take concrete action to combat climate change. Renewable energy is at the forefront of the Old Continent's "green" action plan, this is clear from the priorities that emerged from COP25 in Paris and the objectives set by Ursula Von Der Leyen, the new European Commission president. Even though this decade did not get off to a great start, from record-high ocean temperatures to the devastating fires that hit the USA, Australia and the Amazon, this last year has brought some good news about photovoltaic use and its spread across the whole EU. According to "Solar Power Europe" (SPE) estimates, analysed by the specialised portal qualenergia.it, 2019 saw a total of 16.7 GW of new solar power installations added in the 28 EU Member States, an increase of 104% over the 8.2 GW added in 2018. The EU Market Outlook for Solar Power 2019-2023 report, providing forecasts on solar market developments in Europe, notes that we are at the beginning of an expansion phase for solar and examines the contribution of different emerging markets.

The boost of photovoltaics

European photovoltaics has not seen this level of growth in many years, not since the initial boom of new installations led by Germany and Italy in 2010-2011, this is all possible thanks to fiscal and economic incentives. The situation in Europe looks very promising. Despite being an "old" market where the sector has remained stagnated for many years, Spain has now taken the lead in Europe, with 4.7 GW installed in 2019. They are followed by Germany, The Netherlands and France, with 4, 2.5 and 1.1 GW of new installed capacity respectively in the current year. Surprisingly, Poland was in fifth place, with 784 MW, four times more than in the previous twelve months.

According to SPE estimates, Italy ranks eighth with 598 MW, behind Hungary and Belgium, but is up on 2018 (by around +100 MW). To stay in line with the targets set in the "National Energy and Climate Plan" (NECP), for 26.8 GW from photovoltaics by 2025, Italian growth needs to progress much faster, reaching an average of 1 GW each year. Calls by the Government and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte for sustainability, as a driver for the administration's short-term planning, and the establishment of Cipress (the inter-ministerial committee for economic planning and sustainable development) suggest a more favourable climate for the development of this resource and for it to become a fundamental part of Italy's energy supply.

This is precisely the direction taken by many Italian universities and companies, who are investing in and carrying out research into OPV technology. Eni is one of these, with its Research Centre for Renewables and the Environment in Novara. By using photovoltaic films alongside traditional solar panels, this versatile system could put photovoltaics in a dominant position for electricity production within a few years. It is also likely that the research will progress, increasing the system's efficiency, making it more functional, cost-effective and, above all, less harmful to the environment. Ultimately, the aim is to progressively replace the current traditional system. Finally, in light of recent dramatic climatic events, having the ability to supply electricity to crisis areas should be a catalyst for investment in and the further development of OPV technology.