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Solar Energy 'Revolution' Brings Green Power Closer

By John Vidal
The Guardian
December 29, 2007


Solar energy 'revolution' brings green power closerPanels start solar power 'revolution'

The holy grail of renewable energy came a step closer yesterday as thousands of
mass-produced wafer-thin solar cells printed on aluminium film rolled off a
production line in California, heralding what British scientists called "a
revolution" in generating electricity.

The solar panels produced by a Silicon Valley start-up company, Nanosolar, are
radically different from the kind that European consumers are increasingly
buying to generate power from their own roofs. Printed like a newspaper directly
on to aluminium foil, they are flexible, light and, if you believe the company,
expected to make it as cheap to produce electricity from sunlight as from coal.

Yesterday Nanosolar said its order books were full until mid-2009 and that a
second factory would soon open in Germany where demand for solar power has
rocketed. Britain was unlikely to benefit from the technology for some years
because other countries paid better money for renewable electricity, it added.

"Our first solar panels will be used in a solar power station in Germany," said
Erik Oldekop, Nanosolar's manager in Switzerland. "We aim to produce the panels
for 99 cents [50p] a watt, which is comparable to the price of electricity
generated from coal. We cannot disclose our exact figures yet as we are a
private company but we can bring it down to that level. That is the vision we
are aiming at."

He added that the first panels the company was producing were aimed for large-
scale power plants rather than for homeowners, and that the cost benefits would
be in the speed that the technology could be deployed. "We are aiming to make
solar power stations up to 10MW in size. They can be up and running in six to
nine months compared to 10 years or more for coal-powered stations and 15 years
for nuclear plants. Solar can be deployed very quickly," said Oldekop.

Nanosolar is one of several companies in Japan, Europe, China and the US racing
to develop different versions of "thin film" solar technology. It is owned by
internet entrepreneur Martin Roscheisen who sold his company to Yahoo for $450m
and, with the help of the founders of Google, the US government and other
entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, has invested nearly $300m in commercialising
the technology.

At the moment solar electricity costs nearly three times as much as conventional
electricity to generate, but Nanosolar's developments are thought to have halved
the price of producing conventional solar cells at a stroke.

"This is the world's lowest-cost solar panel, which we believe will make us the
first solar manufacturer capable of profitably selling solar panels at as little
as 99 cents a watt," said Roscheisen yesterday.

However, the company, which claims to lead the "third wave" of solar
electricity, is notoriously secretive and has not answered questions about its
panels' efficiency or their durability. It is quite open about wanting to
restrict access to the technology to give it a market advantage.

Jeremy Leggett, chief executive of Britain's leading solar energy company, Solar
Century, said that it would be "breathtaking" if the technology proved as
efficient as projected by the company. "This is a revolution. But people are
going to be amazed at other developments taking place in solar technologies. We
will be thrilled if this technology is as efficient as the company says. It will
not change the direction of solar power in itself. Spectacular improvements are
also being made in other parts of the industry," he said.

Figures released yesterday by the Earth Policy Institute in Washington showed
that solar electricity generation was now the fastest-growing electricity
source, doubling its output every two years. It is now attracting government and
venture capital money on an unprecedented scale.

The technology is particularly exciting because it can be used nearly
everywhere. "You are talking about printing rolls of the stuff, printing it on
garages, anywhere you want it. It really is a big deal in terms of altering the
way we think about solar," said Dan Kamman, director of the Renewable and
Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley.

"The next industrial revolution will be based on these clean green
technologies," said Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth. "If the UK
wants to be part of it, as Gordon Brown says it does, then it needs to rethink
its strategies. Ministers have so far shown a distinct lack of vision."

Power from light

Photovoltaic (PV) devices convert light into electrical energy. PV cells are
made of semiconductor materials such as silicon. When light shines on a PV cell,
the energy is transferred to electrons in the atoms of the PV cell. These
electrons become part of the electrical flow, or current, in an electrical
circuit. First wave photovoltaic cell used thick silicon-wafer cells but were
cumbersome and costly. The second generation of photovoltaic materials were
developed about 10 years ago and use very thin silicon layers. These brought the
price down dramatically but still need expensive vacuum processes in their
construction. The third wave of PV, now being developed by firms such as
Nanosolar, can print directly on to other materials and does not use silicon.

 

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