When South Africa was emerging from apartheid in 1993, Professor Vivian Alberts and his students were busy developing traditional silicon photovoltaic solar systems in his lab at the University of Johannesburg. Expensive silicon is the classic way that the sun’s energy has been harvested for electrical power since 1954, but today Alberts is trying something different, helping create the continent’s energy future using a proprietary glass coating called thin film, and there is no silicon here.
His big new discovery for a thin film coating for glass was announced in 2007. Although the race for something to replace traditional silicon has many players, not only is Albert’s factory the only one in South Africa, it is the only full manufacturing plant for photovoltaic modules on the whole continent.
When solar power becomes cheaper than traditional sources of energy, this is called grid parity. To have grid parity, solar must be as cheap or cheaper than coal, oil, nuclear or gas per kilowatt generated. Thin film, because it has lower manufacturing costs at scale, has traditionally been thought to offer this, because traditional silicon-based solar modules are more expensive.