Thin Film-Solar's Holy Grail
By Steve Christ
Baltimore, MD-The solar power doom and gloomers are at it again. But then again they can't really help themselves. After all, the price of both oil and natural gas both fell sharply last week. And in doing so it gave them a sort of convoluted beachhead from which to roll their eyes at solar.
But what these flat earthers don't seem to understand is that there is actually a bona fide revolution going on in solar power. And it's the kind of revolution that is quickly beginning to disconnect the industry from the chains have that shackled it to the price of a barrel of oil or its equivalent in natural gas.
Now for those of you whose eyes glaze over at the mere mention of solar power, let me tell you this about the new solar: it's not your grandfather's solar and it's certainly not the 70's anymore either.
And no matter how much it may be ingrained into your mind that solar power is just some sort of distortional fantasy, nothing could be further from the truth.
Because not only have the times themselves changed, but they are in the process of being transformed in ways that will alter the way we think about solar forever.
Leading this stunning transformation, as usual is a next generation technology. It's called thin film solar.
It's smaller, cheaper, and more efficient than its silicon based predecessors and it now stands poised to shake the industry from out of its doldrums.
In fact, its emergence in to the market is expected to help the solar industry grow from $11 billion in 2005 to $51 billion in 2015 according to a projection by Clean Edge Inc., a market research firm that is focused on clean technology.
And since those numbers are hardly the types of figures that you can roll your eyes at, numerous companies are working to stake themselves a thin film claim.
Leading the way in this space is Nanosolar Inc., a private Palo Alto company that was founded with a little seed money from the Google guys themselves, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
Founded in 2001, Nanosolar recently made the type of an
that changes landscapes. In fact, just last June the company
that they were going to build the world's largest factory for
And while this announcement may have failed to move some, to the solar power industry, the news was a tsunami. In one fell swoop, the nation's solar manufacturing process would triple, making the U.S. the second largest solar manufacturer. Only the Japanese would be larger.
Even more stunning was capacity of the plant itself. According to Nanosolar's CEO, Martin Roschesien, the plant will turn out enough solar cells each year to generate 430 megawatts. That's enough electricity to power about 325,000 homes.
Once started, the Nanosolar plant will produce a new type of material that will blow away the existing silicon based panels at 1/10 of the cost. And in doing so, this new technology promises to make solar competitive with fossil based fuels- even if those fuels drop drastically in prices.
In short, it is the solar equivalent of the Holy Grail.
All of which makes Nanosolar a true pioneer in their industry. For four years their engineers had been busy working on solar cell prototypes. The pay dirt, Roscheisen says, is that Nanosolar's engineers have created the types solar cell technologies that are now poised to shake the industry from its reliance on costly silicon based panels.
Of course, these revolutionary developments couldn't possibly have come at a better time.
With the Middle East currently in a state of constant turmoil and the price of oil tied to its whims, it looks as though solar's day in the sun may finally have arrived.
"This is a good space", Roscheisen says. "The market is very, very, large."
Venture capitalists seem to agree. Once primarily the realm of an environmental fringe, solar has suddenly become a hot commodity. And the very folks that made fortunes in the 1990's during the internet boom are now among its biggest advocates.
But what made all of this promise possible has been the creation and improvement of thin film technology.
In the course of their work, Nanosolar engineers developed a way to imbed a compound called CIGS into thin polymer films. This metallic compound is the key to the entire process. It contains copper, indium, gallium and selenium. Without these metals the production of these films is impossible.
The important note here is that these films are without silicon, a factor that allows them to be more cheaply produced.
But Nanosolar's news didn't end with the announcement of its record setting factory. Recently the company also announced that it had signed a long term agreement to develop large scale solar power systems with Conergy an experienced worldwide solar contractor.
The agreement prompted this comment from Cameron Moore, regional Head of Conergy Group in North America "We are looking forward to a successful partnership with Nanosolar. With every tenth solar system installed worldwide and an innovative product portfolio, Conergy has established itself as major supplier in the growing photovoltaic market. Conergy's extensive engineering and system competence matches perfectly with Nanosolar's best-in-class technology".
But Nanosolar, of course is not alone. Many other thin film start ups are also competing in the space including Innovalight, Konarka, Miasole and Heliovolt.
Long time solar companies, such BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and Honda are also working to establish themselves as thin film players.
In fact, in February Royal Dutch Shell sold its crystalline silicon business to SolarWorld choosing to concentrate its efforts solely on thin film instead.
Even Applied Material has gotten into the act. The chip maker recently bought Applied Films for $464 million last May as part of its effort to establish a toehold in the emerging technology.
So while some may still have a hard time taking solar seriously in light of falling crude prices, their math may cause them miss the boat. Solar power it now seems is ready to leave the harbor. And when it does it will have little or nothing to do with crude.
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