For a long time, solar panels were mainly available in one shape, size and colour. This contributed to making them very inexpensive, but limited the application possibilities. In recent years TNO, together with partners, has succeeded in developing PV elements with shapes and colour patterns of their choice, for example to be integrated in buildings and noise barriers or even to be incorporated invisibly and curved in the bodywork of a car.
The next step that TNO and partners are now taking is to make these types of applications suitable for large-scale market introduction using 'mass customisation': the flexible processing of high-yield PV cells and films into semi-finished 'custom-made' products that can then be integrated into all kinds of surfaces and objects.
To achieve this goal TNO, with financial backing from the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate, is building new facilities where it will develop the new generation of solar PV with universities, PV element manufacturers, equipment and material suppliers and end users. Customisation, low costs and high yields are the key features here.
TNO is convinced that this will enable our country to further expand its leading position in the field of advanced PV technology in combination with innovative applications. Research and industry are both at a high level in this domain and can work together to build a new strategic industrial value chain in the Netherlands. Our manufacturing industry along with the building and construction and installation sectors have a prominent place in this. These companies can make use of the open innovation environment realised by TNO in Eindhoven and Petten. The facilities are equipped for both silicon and thin-film technology, and for the combination of the two in the form of tandems.
The ambition is to make solar energy available for a whole range of applications, each of which has specific requirements in terms of size, colour, shape (curved or flat) and packaging. Technically a lot is already possible, but production is still far too expensive. The former ECN and also TNO have made a major contribution to reducing the costs and increasing the efficiency of standard solar cells and panels in recent decades. It is now a question of doing the same for customised solutions that can be produced on a large scale: custom-made solar energy for a large number of different applications that are affordable, efficient and of proven reliability.
The advanced equipment that will be placed in the facilities enable inventions to be tested and prototypes or test series to be made. In the pilot line, individual high-efficiency PV basic elements will be combined into a custom-made PV semi-finished product. Subsequently, usually by the end user and using existing processes and production lines, this can be processed into an integrated PV product. The first step, the production of the PV semi-finished products, is called mass customisation. This means that we can produce series from one to series of thousands. There will be machines for prefabrication, batch-to-batch and roll-to-roll pilot production. All this makes the facility unique in the world. Apart from the facilities, TNO can assist customers in researching technical and economic feasibility.
Companies that can make use of the facilities are manufacturers of products in which solar cells can be incorporated. An example is Lightyear which, with the help of TNO, succeeded in converting high-efficiency PV cells into 3D curved, lightweight elements for integration in the roof, bonnet and tailgate of the Lightyear One. In addition, this includes equipment manufacturers that make the final custom-made products.
Mass customisation, certainly in combination with next-generation PV with very high energy yield, is a completely new concept with great opportunities for our business and industry. Where mass-produced solar cells are cheaply produced elsewhere in the world and perhaps soon also again in Europe, our country can stand out by incorporating them in all kinds of new materials, surfaces and products. This can create a new niche for our manufacturing industry with the potential to create many thousands of new jobs. It also brings closer the agreements in the Climate Agreement to integrate solar energy attractively and cost-effectively into existing buildings, infrastructure and other surfaces on a much larger scale. To quote the National Science Agenda: 'every surface generates sustainable energy'.