Solar World: Concentrators in PV clothing

By LEAH KRAUSS, UPI Energy Correspondent   |   Sept. 21, 2006 at 1:17 PM
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It looks like a regular photovoltaic panel, works a bit like a concentrator photovoltaic system of mirrors and panels, and according to its manufacturer, costs one-half to one-third as much.

"Solaria's mission is to make solar a more affordable source of energy by driving down the cost of solar photovoltaics and further accelerating the growth and expansion of the solar industry," Suvi Sharma, Solaria's CEO, wrote to United Press Intenrational in an e-mail.

Fremont, Calif.-based Solaria is developing low-concentration PV technology, which concentrates the sun's rays two to three times as they hit the panel. The modules also use significantly less silicon than traditional PV panels, according to Sharma.

Existing forms of concentrator PV usually use mirrors to collect sunlight and concentrate it onto a small panel of PV cells, at strengths of tens of suns to hundreds of suns.

"Solaria's technology, unlike most other solar concentration technologies, does not require mirrors, moving parts, or tracking systems" to follow the sun's movement across the sky, Sharma wrote.

"High concentration systems require their own infrastructure, systems, and have a lot of technical challenges associated with temperature (because the sun is so highly concentrated, the CPV panels have to be cooled constantly -- L.K.) and the need for tracking."

This means that the technology "fits seamlessly into today's PV supply chain because it has the same form, fit, and function of conventional PV modules," Sharma said.

The company also promises that its panels will cost significantly less than existing PV technology -- one-half to one-third of the price tag.

"At a systems level, the goal is to have systems where the cost of the energy produced will be 20 percent to 30 percent below that of a standard solar PV system," Sharma said.

"It is a good idea and will extend (shrinking) silicon supplies," J. Peter Lynch, a financial consultant and an expert on the renewable energy industry, told UPI.

On Tuesday, the company announced it has raised investments totaling $22 million in a second round of financing.

Among the investors were "Sigma Partners and NGEN Partners, two leading venture capital firms; (Germany's) Q-Cells AG, the world's largest independent manufacturer of crystalline silicon solar cells; and Moser Baer, India's largest and the world's second-largest manufacturer of removable optical storage media," according to a Solaria company statement.

"We believe our investment will help ensure that Solaria's technology can drive down the cost of solar PV and further accelerate the growth and expansion of the solar industry," Q-Cells' Chief Executive Officer, Anton Milner, said via the Solaria statement.

Because Solaria's product is in its earliest stages, the German company would not comment further, except to note that "we think it's a very good technology to make more out of a given amount of silicon," according to a spokesman.

The Q-Cells investment is significant, since Germany is widely regarded as the home of the world's most advanced solar energy industry.

With that $22 million in its pocket, "the company is currently working with select commercialization partners and is on schedule to enter high-volume production in 2007," Sharma wrote.

"Additionally, we have a 5-megawatt production line in the (San Francisco) Bay Area, and will be completing our reliability test program with our partners in the field," he said.

Although Solaria is one of dozens of new solar companies around the world joining an already fast-growing industry, analysts are not worried that the solar market will crash any time soon.

In a summary of his 2006 annual report on the solar energy industry, Michael Rogol wrote that "after months of research, we have come to the conclusion that there is much, much more demand than capacity, and that demand is growing faster than supply."

"Today, global demand is approximately 5 gigawatts for modules at prices of $3.50 to $4.50 per watt," Rogol said. "This is far greater than production," which stands at 2.4 gigawatts this year.

Because of this, Rogol predicts that solar energy prices will remain high at least until 2010.

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(Comments to energy@upi.com)

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