By Alexis Madrigal EmailOctober 06, 2008 | 11:00:00 PMCategories: Energy Solyndra_083
FREMONT, California — Scientists’ solar cells have been converting sunlight into electricity for years, but are much worse at turning that science into money.
Now, in a staid Bay Area office park, a converted hard-drive factory with a shiny new façade has begun churning out unconventional solar tubes that could change the economics of solar power.
The highly-automated factory belongs to Solyndra, a three-year-old company that’s received $600 million in venture capital and $1.2 billion in orders for its new modules, which look like curtain rods. Those big investors are betting the company’s unique product will soon blanket commercial buildings across the world.
Instead of the standard panels mounted on racks that have dominated solar for the last 20 years, Solyndra’s cylindrical solar modules collect sunlight more efficiently across a broader range of angles and catch light reflected off the roof itself. The solar cells also contain no silicon, which has been a costly component of most solar systems.
Targeted at a highly specific market — office and big-box rooftops — and with signed contracts in hand, the company, along with a small cadre of other well-funded solar startups, are racing to turn their scientific and engineering marvels into profitable businesses.
The scramble, the money, and the size of the prize — a big slice of the trillions of dollars made in energy — remind the company’s founder, Chris Gronet, of his earlier experience in the industry that became the basis for the information revolution.
“We think the solar industry or market look very similar to the way semiconductor manufacturing was 20 years ago,” Gronet, Solyndra’s CEO, told Wired.com. “We say, ‘Wow this is familiar. We’ve been through this before.'”
All types of solar power have experienced growth in the wake of increasing awareness of the risks of climate change and the rising costs of fossil fuels. A report released last week by Lux Research, a solar-focused analysis firm, predicts that the total solar market will grow from $33.4 billion in 2008 to $100.4 billion in 2013. While traditional silicon-based solar cells continue to underpin most solar systems, there is a broad expectation among industry analysts and insiders that these new thin-film solar cells, such as Solyndra is making, will experience rapid growth. While thin-film cells aren’t as efficient at using the sun’s energy as their silicon competitors, they cost less to produce.
Solyndra_087 Instead of using wafers of material, a la computer chips or traditional solar PV, thin-film solar cells use tiny amounts of material deposited in ultra thin layers along the surface of glass or metal. In Solyndra’s case, vice president of business development Kelly Truman said that their process uses just a bit more than a micron of copper indium gallium diselenide, or CIGS. Using less of the expensive photovoltaic material drives the cost of their production down.
For years, CIGS technology had appeared the most promising for cheap solar power. The National Solar Technology Roadmap, created by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, states that steady efficiency improvement “could ultimately allow CIGS to achieve the lowest module costs and levelized cost of energy among all PV technologies.”
The total solar market can be broken into three main pieces: solar for utilities, residential installations and commercial buildings. Solyndra is focusing exclusively on the commercial side. What Gronet envisions is solar panels installed on your average Home Depot or Ikea, generating a substantial percentage of the company’s power needs right on site.
On the roof of the Solyndra office buildings, they’ve installed the first Solyndra array. What’s striking about the system is how simple it appears. The solar tubes look like reverse fluorescent light bulbs that generate electricity rather than using it. The mounting system is also light and small, as you can see in the image. They don’t have to be bolted to roofs because the spacing between the cylinders makes them less susceptible to wind damage than traditional flat solar panels.
But despite the industry’s high hopes, CIGS solar cells have proven very difficult to manufacture at industrial scales. Greentech Media analyst Michael Kanellos said that the risks for CIGS thin-film players have “increased dramatically” over the last few months with the worsening financial system and increased competition.