ReneSola Claims New Wafer Will Boost Solar Cell Efficiency To 17.5 Percent

ReneSola (NYSE: SOL) a major manufacturer of solar products based in Jiashan, China announced this week that its new silicon-based wafer, dubbed the Virtus, boosts multicrystalline solar cell efficiency to 17.5 percent.

The company plans to sell the Virtus Wafer to manufacturers of multicrystalline solar cells. Its earlier customers in this segment have included: Suntech Power, JA Solar, and ARISE Technologies. JC Solar, a wholly owned subsidiary of ReneSola which makes multicrystalline solar cells and modules, will both test and use the Virtus in its products, of course.

Why is ReneSola shouting their un-verified wafer claims to the rooftops? Is this really a huge breakthrough?

Companies like SunPower in San Jose, California or SunGrid in Australia have been producing monocrystalline solar cells for years that are even more efficient than 17.5 percent. However, monocrystalline cells and panels have tended to be more expensive than polycrystalline varieties due to more complicated manufacturing requirements.

ReneSola’s Virtus Wafer could help bring the cheaper-to-make variety of solar tech — multicrystalline solar cells and panels — to be about as efficient as monocrystalline varieties, without being as costly to manufacture. (Making solar power more affordable, eventually to the point where solar is at parity or better versus coal and oil, remains a holy grail within the sector.)

ReneSolar plans to embark on pilot production of their Virtus Wafer in early 2011, according to a company press statement. Thus far, the wafer has been tested in solar cells made by some of the company’s clients, and in their own labs. However, it has not been tested by the U.S.-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a verifier of cell efficiency claims, nor by an NREL equivalent in another country.

The wafer still has yet to be tested in use within solar panels in any lab. Those initial tests of panels incorporating this wafer are under way, a company spokesperson confirmed.

ReneSola’s competition in the quest to build a better wafer — one that improves the efficiency of solar photovoltaics, but is not more expensive to manufacture — range from the venture-backed Boston startup, 1366 Technologies to a fellow, major solar manufacturer in China, LDK Solar.