March 9, 2006 4:00 AM PST

Solar industry chases a cheaper kilowatt

Solar power, long seen as among the most promising of alternative energy sources, may finally get its chance to shine.

Solar equipment manufacturers have been chasing the same goal for decades: producing a cheaper kilowatt of electricity. Now, after years of unfulfilled hopes, experts say that the solar picture is finally improving.

New technology is being developed in solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. And, more important, investors seem to be taking the advice of none other than Thomas Edison, the legendary inventor who famously exclaimed: "I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy."

Many decades later, venture capitalists are heeding that call.

"Conditions have never been better because electricity prices are going up. The basic challenges with solar energy haven't gone away (since the 1970s) but clearly advances in material science, the economic conditions we're facing, and environmental mandates are all making solar much more attractive," said William Lese, managing director of venture capital firm Braemar Energy Ventures.

The surge in venture capital activity dovetails with the growing interest overall in so-called clean technologies. "It's not like the Internet boom of the late 1990s, but there's a clear understanding that this is a market that is about to take off," said Steve Chadima, chief marketing officer at Energy Innovations, a manufacturer of energy systems spun off from incubator Idealab.

Although still a fraction of overall energy industry, use of solar PV goods--products that convert light to electricity--saw rapid growth last year. The total market, which includes components and installation services, grew more than 50 percent in 2005, according to Clean Edge, a clean energy research firm.

Brighter economic prospects for clean energy have set off a race to manufacture more efficient solar panels, which will improve the cost per kilowatt for consumers. Solar PV systems are still substantially more expensive than purchasing electricity generated from fossil fuels or nuclear power, according to industry experts.

The high cost of silicon, the material that converts light to electricity in most solar panels today, is one of the biggest barriers to lowering the cost of solar PV systems, said solar company executives.

"The industry is capacity constrained for the foreseeable future," said Richard Chleboski, vice president of worldwide expansion at Evergreen Solar, who spoke at a recent Piper Jaffray conference on the solar industry. "Technology is really key in this industry because it's a necessary component to create cost reductions."

Going beyond silicon
Established solar providers are betting that increased silicon capacity and improved manufacturing will make solar electricity more affordable and stoke more demand. But several smaller companies are taking widely varying routes with the same goal in mind.

solar power

Many companies are investing in advanced manufacturing techniques that cut down on the amount of silicon required to make a panel. Evergreen Solar, for example, has devised a "string ribbon" production method which it says reduces silicon waste and boosts the efficiency of panels, thus lowering the overall system costs.

Silicon-based solar panels dominate the market. But several smaller companies are challenging the incumbents with solar cells built from materials other than silicon.

Start-ups Miasole, Nanosolar and DayStar Technologies are using so-called thin film solar cell processing and nanotechnology in an effort to boost efficiency and lower costs.

"There are questions marks around the type of efficiency (thin film technology) can get and the longevity of the cells. But these companies are moving forward rapidly, beyond the R&D stage and into production," said Ron Pernick, principal of Clean Edge.

Another approach is solar concentrators, where solar panels are equipped with mirrors to focus the sun rays on a photovoltaic cell to make them more productive at creating electricity. These products could be used to supplement the power of a large warehouse or retail outlet, for example.

Energy Innovations, SolFocus, Solaria and Pacific SolarTech are working on concentrators. These systems are being pilot-tested, and the companies are expected to commercialize their products over the next year.

chart

Another notable nonsilicon solar company is Stirling Energy Systems. It is constructing huge farms of mirrored dishes in the California desert to generate electricity. It expects to deliver on its contracts to build facilities that generate hundreds of megawatts of power in late 2008, said Stirling CEO Bruce Osborn.

Konarka, which recently raised an additional $20 million in venture funding, is pursuing organic photovoltaics, where solar cells are made from plastics.

Although still in development, this process of "printing" organic solar cells results in flexible strips which can be used for a wide range of applications, from solar-powered cell phones to portable Army structures covered in photovoltaic material, according to the company.

"If you want to dramatically lower the price of PV, it's not about scavenging the last piece of silicon. It's about changing the manufacturing process," Konarka CEO Howard Berke said at the Piper Jaffray conference earlier this month.

CONTINUED: Rising competition…
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22 comments

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humanity needs this
it is a very good thing that money is being invested into new energy technologies. that aside how cool a name is DayStar Technologies for a photovoltic cell manufacturer, way cool in my books.
Posted by roy cactus (13 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I agree that Thomas Edison was right. He also said opportunity is often missed because it comes disguised as hard work. Another thing, as Americans, maybe people in general, we don't act in our benefit unless we are faced with a challenge, and we don't make great leaps unless we are REACTING to something. So, we are finally reacting to the fact that we are hurting our planet on a daily basis by relying solely on fossil fuels. I am 30 years old and I want to be a part of my sons future by contributing to the preservation on what was fought for, and the gift GOD has given us. That house made not of hands, shall remain forever in the heavens.

Charell Williams
Posted by Ntchwaidumela (1 comment )
Link Flag
Everyone must do this or we will be under water real soon.
This is one of the best ways to reduce green house gases. Stop burning coal to make electricity, put solar panels on your house and make money...
Posted by (19 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The idea is good....
.... but the oceans will rise at least 20 feet no matter what we do.
Global warming has momentum.
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Link Flag
Solar Power
Solar power is a very exciting thing, though not economically cheap, i believe the possibilities are improving for this technology. The BBC ran a segment on solar power not long ago, the researcher they interviewed said that if 4% of the worlds deserts were usued to produce solar energy that it would supply the worlds need for power. This is not to bad considereing right now the majority of solar panels are less than 30% effective. Though not very economical now perhaps with the right developments this could be a superior source of energy. Addimititedly our fossil fuel friends have done some good things, like assit to make the northwest passage a reallity in the next 50 years(from nova's series artic explorers), however with effort there is the possibility cleaner and cheaper energy.
Posted by mvonnied (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Wow, only 4% of the world's deserts...
Wow! Africa, currently the dark (and hottest) continent, at least on its north side, would rise up and be the energy moguls of the next generation, much like the Middle East currently has a chokehold on the world energy market based on its demand for oil. Although, it would probably not be able to afford the investment needed to set up a solar panel mega-farm across the Sahara desert without international funding.

I think the world energy requirements will keep going up, even with more energy efficient devices, because more people are going to be using these devices in the future, and that would lead to an increase in demand.
Posted by tutenstein (13 comments )
Link Flag
You missed HeliioDynamics' CSP system
The HelioDynamics Concentrating Combined Heat and Power solar system has broken the capital cost barrier that has stood in the way of the proliferation of solar. It's a distributable scale unit from 1 kWe (plus 10kW of heat) on up to megawatts! How come it wasn't included in the article?
Posted by ajviking (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Your forgot ECD OVONIC
ECD OVONIC has already created shingles for your house that work on cloudy days.
Posted by km7 (15 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Solar Integrated Technologies and big roofs
Here is how you start making a big difference, with large roof solar installations. SIT has done large area warehouse roofs for Coke, Frito Lay and others, and recently a trial Wal-mart roof in McKinney, Texas. <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.solarintegrated.com/" target="_newWindow">http://www.solarintegrated.com/</a>

They use the durable and rugged panels from Unisolar, and bond them directly to their roofing membranes for a 25 year warranty roof that produces electricity from early morning to evening. The Unisolar panels do not use crystalline silicone, so are immune from the shortage, and are made by the mile on a stainless steel substrate.

Del
Posted by dkroupa (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
investment
yes this sounds realistic. Considering this what equities should I invest in? It looks good for organics and even nanos.

Any ideas?
Posted by snowbright (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
crunch time sooner?
won't it all come to a head sooner, oil may become to expensive in the next few years..
Posted by snowbright (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Numbers please?
Would it be too much of a wet blanket question to all of the
enthusiastic supporters of widespread solar energy
developments if I asked for some cost and production numbers?

How much power can a roof sized solar system produce at its
peak?

How much power does the building underneath the solar system
need?

How long will the solar panel operate?

How often does the system need maintenance in order to keep
its output within advertised capabilities?

How much does it cost to clean?

How large are the taxpayer costs per unit of delivered power in
subsidies?

How much do electric utility customers pay for the mandated
uses of the technology?

I have been reading about solar breakthroughs since 1973. Little
has changed except for the cost of the competition and the
quantity of dollars flowing from taxpayers and monopoly utility
companies.

I believe that there is a very good reason why BP spends a tiny
portion of its annual revenue on solar energy and then spends
even more promoting its resulting image as a company that is
"beyond petroleum".
Posted by Rod Adams (74 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Numbers please?
Would it be too much of a wet blanket question to all of the
enthusiastic supporters of widespread solar energy
developments if I asked for some cost and production numbers?

How much power can a roof sized solar system produce at its
peak?

How much power does the building underneath the solar system
need?

How long will the solar panel operate?

How often does the system need maintenance in order to keep
its output within advertised capabilities?

How much does it cost to clean?

How large are the taxpayer costs per unit of delivered power in
subsidies?

How much do electric utility customers pay for the mandated
uses of the technology?

I have been reading about solar breakthroughs since 1973. Little
has changed except for the cost of the competition and the
quantity of dollars flowing from taxpayers and monopoly utility
companies.

I believe that there is a very good reason why BP spends a tiny
portion of its annual revenue on solar energy and then spends
even more promoting its resulting image as a company that is
"beyond petroleum".
Posted by Rod Adams (74 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Number? Certainly sir.
Hi Rod,

You asked for numbers. Here goes:
Each bay of HelioDynamics Harmony CHP solar system produces around 500 We peak and 3 kW-thermal, at temperatures near to water boiling point, at noon.

Over the year, in Central Valley, California, plan on 1000 kWhe per bay of power and 6000 kWh of heat per bay. Using the heat to power an absorption chiller will save around 2000 kWhe of power for air-con. Each bay requires 150 sq ft of roof area. By shading a translucent roof membrane, it will also displace a further 300 We of lighting, saving around 1000 kWhe of lighting power each year.

For a piublic, commercial or industrial building, the building could see a major reduction (&gt;50%) in its energy demand from grid energy.

Design life - 30 years. Actual life - if maintained: indefinite.

Self cleaning keeps maintenance visits to 1/year.
Subsidies - my question is what is implied subsidy of the fossil fuel industry in having a licence to foul up the thermostat setting of the planet?

And we use only 3% of the silicon to achieve this compared with flat plate solar. The world has just been changed, my friend.
Posted by grahamford000 (1 comment )
Link Flag
I have the answers to your questions
feel free to call me, I have the answers to your questions, Kevin
949.722.8704. You can also watch the video featuring Morgan
Freeman and Ed Bagel jr, at this url

www.jointhesolution.com/kevinbirch
Posted by kevinbirch (2 comments )
Link Flag
Amazing
I understand the ostrich population is increasing at a tremendous rate...I don't know this but from what I understand, having paid close attention to the studies regarding global warming...the only way to avoid it may still be to stick your head in the sand.
Go Ostriches!
owlafaye
Posted by owlafaye (70 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Suddenly Renewable energy is good business
feel free to call me, I have the answers to your questions, Kevin
949.722.8704. You can also watch the video featuring Morgan
Freeman and Ed Bagel jr, at this url

www.jointhesolution.com/kevinbirch
Posted by kevinbirch (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What a waste...
California is going to spend 3 billion dollars for 3000 kilowatts? did i read that right? How many Nuke plants could you build for $3 billion.
WHAT A HUGE WASTE OF MONEY ALL BECAUSE ENVIROMENTALISTS CAN NOT ADMIT THEY WERE WRONG ABOUT NUCLEAR POWER. Even the French figured it out.
Posted by Nukefan (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
No, you didn't read that right...
It's 3000 megawatts, not kilowatts...
Posted by p3nat (1 comment )
Link Flag
I am living in a place that cost .50 cents a kilowatt!!! New energy solutions need to be made affordable so people can switch from using the utility companies.. I do a lot of research but the utility company is still cheaper per kilowatt, than me investing in products that cost a small fortune. I don't plan on being here long time but I would make purchase's that would lower my kilowatt usage.
Posted by JRJHOME (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
What is the advantages of solar generator?
Solar generator is an environmental friendly equipment that can

use anywhere. You can save the earth by having good equipment

like a solar generator. What are the advantages of a solar

generator? If you don't know, check out sunpowerport.com. The

featured generator will run most small electrical appliances.

It is great for camping or emergency backup. No noise. No

fumes. For more details see http://www.sunpowerport.com
Posted by dextercath96 (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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