Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Thin-film Solar - getting there....

Thin-film Solar is touted as the future of solar photo-voltaic technology. Shell recently got out of the crystalline solar cell business to concentrate exclusively on thin-film solar. Big boy of the thin-film world, Nanosolar, has Google as one of its investors. Konarka touting its "power plastic" has got a fair share of the media spotlight too. Swiss start-up Flisom is another of the company that is very bullish on the thin film technology.

Via TreeHugger, Anil Sethi, the chief executive of Flisom believes that within 5 years solar power will be cheap enough to compete with carbon-based electricity even in Upper Siberia.

The promise that nanotechnology will deliver paper-thin solar panels light and cheap enough to coat on entire buildings, and even people's clothes has been well published. The technology exists in the labs and is only awaiting commercialization. What holds back commercialization? The same that has held back solar power from going mainstream since the 1970's - cost.

Cost has kept solar power "just around the corner" for decades. Critics claim this as proof that it will always remain so, and the "tipping point" may never be reached. They are wrong. We have come a long way since the late 1970's - the capital cost of solar power has dropped from $100 per watt back then, to best case options of $3 to $4. And that progress was achieved using the cells that are comparable to micro-chips in cost of production, are as delicate as glass and very bulky to transport and install. Thin-film will be much more robust and cheaper. Unlike the pristine fabs that crystalline cells need, the new films will be, "mass produced in cheap rolls like packaging - in any color".

Mr Sethi believes his product will reach $0.8 per watt in 5 years, though a commercial launch is scheduled for late 2009 - presumably it should reach $1 per watt then. But Flisom has company - his counterpart Mike Splinter at Applied Materials believes his company will reach $1 per watt by then too. A safe assumption is that Konarka and Nanosolar should be there too.

But despite all its investments in alternate energy, the chief executive of Shell believes, "that in twenty years time we'll still be using more oil than now". Hmm... There are plenty of legendary visions that went awfully wrong like this one and greens will be fervently hoping that this one joins those. And a big boost to thin-film manufacturing should be the entry of China.

Update: Excellent post on Konarka, Nanosolar and Nanosys.