Dr. James rand is a 30-year solar veteran, president of Core Energy Works, a HeatSpring expert instructor AND a Sustainable Scholar. He spoke with us about his professional journey, how the industry has changed, his HeatSpring courses and the future of solar PV.
Why do you care about sustainability? What drives you to continue your work in this field?
I am a strong advocate for solar as a renewable energy source. Having grown up in a time of environmental activism, Earth Day and gas shortages, working on solar seemed like a sure bet in 1982. It took a little longer to go mainstream than Jimmy Carter and I thought it would.
Tell us about your background — how did you get to where you are today?
After completing an undergraduate degree in physics and finishing some internships working on Department of Defense projects, I took my first job with IBM in Burlington, Vermont. Although IBM is a good company, it was here that I questioned whether a long career making integrated circuits was the right investment for my working life. So, it was off to graduate school with the intent to study photovoltaic (PV) solar cells.
How has the solar industry changed since you arrived on the scene 30 years ago?
I started my studies in solar in 1983, and took my first full time solar job in 1985. At that time solar was more of a calling than a business, and we were the hopeful missionaries. I clearly remember the first simple payback calculation I did for solar, it was 86 years! Although we knew where we wanted to go, we had no real idea how to get there– we were pretty much working on faith. At that time conventional wisdom said that silicon solar cells were a dead technology, unable to ever reach the low costs needed to compete with conventional power sources, and thin films were “the only way to go.” Conventional wisdom in this case turned out to be wrong.
Today, of course, PV is a fully mature business. Although the manufacturing sector has left the US for the time being, I do see lots of potential improvements ahead in installation, monitoring, and insuring long term reliability.
You’re the president of Core Energy Works. What services do you offer? Why is the “testing and evaluation of solar modules” important for customers?
We at Core Energy Works want to work closely with both system owners and module manufactures to insure that high quality products get built, and that they survive the trip from the manufacturing floor though to installation in the field with no surprises along the way. Core Energy Works has deep experience in the manufacture, testing, performance, reliability and certification of PV modules. We want to use that experience to assist with PV’s overall success by ensuring the products that are installed are reliable and performing as expected. To do that, Core Energy Works performs IV testing, EL and IR imaging, and a number of certification test procedures both in the lab and in the field. For example, we evaluate PV products for transportation damage which may produce defects. These tests are very difficult to carry out without the right testing equipment and expertise (see the Seminar on “5 Things You Should Know about PV Modules”).
You teach a course about Infrared Imaging as a PV Characterization Tool on HeatSpring’s platform. Tell us about that course. What should students expect to learn?
Infrared (IR) imaging is a critical tool to tell you if your PV system is performing well. The actual energy generation of your solar system is still the primary data gathered, but it does not tell the whole story. IR imaging is required to determine if defects are present that can negatively impact performance, cause unsafe conditions, or should trigger a warranty claim. IR imaging can often detect problems before they result in unsafe conditions. All maintenance procedures on PV systems should require detailed IR imaging. The “Infrared Imaging as a PV Characterization Tool” seminar provides a guide to understanding what the IR images mean and how they correlate to defects in PV modules.
Enroll in Infrared Imaging as a PV Characterization Tool for an introduction to infrared imaging (IR) technology and an overview of how it can be used to greatly improve solar PV O&M. Join Dr. Rand and learn about the array and weather conditions needed for IR imaging, how to understand typical PV failure modes and the signature IR image they generate, how to give general guidance on the severity of defects identified in the IR images and more.
Where is solar PV headed? How are the next generations of materials and models different?
I believe that crystalline silicon-based PV products will be the industry standard for many more years. The silicon PV business now has a product with proven reliability, low cost, benign and abundant materials of construction, and a mature supply stream. To displace it in the market will require a new, differentiated product. I believe the key difference will have to be efficiency. As silicon modules are now reaching 20% in efficiency, the goal of the next generation will have to be significantly higher (30% or more) to provide the motivation needed to spin up a new industry. The technical requirements to reach such an efficiency will require breakthroughs in materials and devices. My best guess is that the new product that finally displaces silicon-based modules with be a 4 terminal tandem structure based on a new material platforms. The fact that I have devoted the past 7 years of my career to the performance and reliability of silicon-based products give you some hint of how long I think that will take.
What advice would you give your younger self, starting out in the professional world?
Choosing an immature field for my career, like solar was in the 1980s, was a good choice. Today a similar field may be storage. We as an industry know that we need it, we know how leveraging it will be, we know how the potential environmental impact will be huge, we just don’t know how to do it cost effectively. So I would say myself, “Storage young Jim, that’s the future.”
Check out James’ FREE course: 5 Things You Should Know about Silicon PV Panels