Global additions of renewable power capacity are expected to jump by a third this year, according to the IEA. This is due to a combination of factors including the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the war in Ukraine, and the technology adoption cost curve. Yet, we’ve only begun to tap solar’s immense potential. According to Jim Tyler, CEO of solar technology company Erthos, reducing the cost of solar electricity will be the key to unlocking the next chapter of the energy transition: a green hydrogen economy.
In a recent interview, Tyler explained how driving down solar’s levelized cost of energy (LCOE) can accelerate the adoption of solar for green hydrogen production. While the startling drop in solar panel prices (from $5/W in 2005 to around $0.25/W today) has fueled the industry’s growth, ongoing LCOE reductions remain imperative.
“You have to get to below $20 a megawatt hour,” said Tyler of the solar electricity price needed to produce competitive green hydrogen. “There are ways to do that. There are ways to get to below $20.” The 2023 LCOE report by Lazard put solar on parity with wind at $24/MWh.
Enter Erthos, founded by Tyler in 2019, which slashes costs through a novel “solar skin” design that eliminates racking and piles by placing panels directly on the ground. The technology is being embraced by developers like Industrial Sun, which announced a 100 MWac project using Erthos technology in Dec. 2022. This approach reduces steel usage by 35 tons per megawatt, halves installation time and real estate needs, and lowers O&M costs. The carbon footprint of steel manufacture is 1.4-1.65 tons of CO2e/ton of steel.
The flat to ground solar also reduces mechanical stress and microcracking on panels, boosting energy yield and project ROI according to a white paper by Erthos. What about periodic flooding of the solar array that flat mounted solar might encounter in the field, you ask? Tyler, who was VP of EPC for First Solar in a previous life, points to the intrinsic waterproof design of both solar panels and BOS that can withstand periodic flooding.
By streamlining the system, Erthos delivers an estimated 20% lower LCOE compared to single axis tracker based solar construction. While industry observers initially doubted putting panels on the ground, Erthos has now contracted over 200 megawatts of its revolutionary design. “It’s just a matter of time until all module providers recognize that and ultimately sign up to this technology,” said Tyler, noting 9 leading module manufacturers have already partnered with Erthos.
Others are pushing LCOE lower in different ways, like tracker manufacturer NexTracker introducing systems with fewer parts. But why does shaving cents off the cost of solar matter so much? Because it can make the difference in scaling up green hydrogen to displace fossil fuels.
“I’m a very firm believer that we are not going to electrify our way out of the [climate] problem,” stressed Tyler. “We have to solve the problem another way. We have to find a renewable replacement for fossil fuel.”
That replacement is hydrogen. Clean hydrogen produced by splitting water with renewable electricity offers a sustainable fuel for transportation, industry, and more. But historically high production costs have limited adoption.
“I’m 100% firm believer that hydrogen is that [fossil fuel] replacement. It’s just too expensive. That’s just the bottom line,” acknowledged Tyler.
The newly passed Inflation Reduction Act provides crucial support, including tax credits for clean hydrogen. However, driving down the single biggest cost component—the solar electricity input—is vital to make green hydrogen cost competitive at scale.
In fact, Tyler suggests one solution is taking solar off-grid altogether to avoid the years-long interconnection queues hindering larger grid-tied solar projects today. Ultra-low-cost off-grid solar plants dedicated to hydrogen production could accelerate the technology’s adoption.
“When you disconnect us from the grid [avoiding interconnection costs and delays], solar will grow even faster for several years,” Tyler predicted.
While challenges remain, from supply chain constraints to electrolyzer availability, the industry leaders driving solar innovation are confident the path is clear. “There are ways to get to below $20,” reiterated Tyler.
With solar progress unlocking the hydrogen opportunity, Tyler sees a bright future. “That’s the industry of the future. And when you do that, solar will grow like you wouldn’t believe.” The race is on to make cheap renewable hydrogen from cheap renewable electricity a reality.
When I first spoke to Tyler he provided additional context on Erthos’ disruptive technology and his storied career pioneering utility-scale solar. He first entered the industry in 2006, working on thin film solar manufacturing equipment. Seeing early solar farms under development, he joined OptiSolar in 2007 as they acquired land and interconnection queue positions to facilitate growth.
After building OptiSolar’s first Canadian project, Tyler moved to First Solar as VP of EPC. There he helped scale their technology as crystalline silicon advanced, before co-founding DEPCOM Power in 2014. DEPCOM grew into a top utility-scale EPC, giving Tyler immense experience with trackers. But after building over 8 gigawatts, he contemplated: what if module prices hit zero?
This sparked the idea for flat to ground mount solar. Tyler determined it made economic sense around 50 cents/W, as modules dropped below 30 cents/W. After verifying solar panels and BOS can survive on the ground, Tyler founded Erthos in 2019 to pursue this inevitable disruption.
With 9 tier-one module partners and over 170MW contracted, Erthos is crossing the chasm into broader adoption. But Tyler explains the shift hinges on LCOE gains trumping perceived risks, just as trackers prevailed for their 5% yield boost despite concerns. With 20% lower LCOE, Erthos should likewise win out.
Still, the transition takes ardent learners willing to embrace ground-mount solar’s advantages. Tyler compares it to next-gen trackers circa 2010 – early adopters tested the waters as bankers and others gradually recognized their value. Now developers like White Pine Renewables and Industrial Sun prove Erthos’ commercial viability.
Ultimately, Tyler sees electrification as insufficient to meet climate goals. Low-cost solar-powered hydrogen production holds the key through its scalable replacement of fossil fuels. He envisions massive off-grid complexes supplying clean fuel, with Erthos slashing solar input costs to under $20/MWh. For Tyler, ushering in this new era through innovation is what drives him.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.
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