The Quiet Boom in Solar Technology

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The Quiet Boom in Solar Technology

Over the past 30-plus years, those who have tried to take advantage of solar electricity have found it a challenging and expensive endeavor, to say the least. But that is about to change, not only for the individual early adopter, but also for electric utilities.

Finally, some core technologies advanced to the point of economic viability. At the same time, some very powerful investors are putting their money behind it. This revolution — which has remained fairly quiet so far — is taking place largely in Silicon Valley, right where you might expect to find it. Among the players are the world’s largest chipmaker and the legendary Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

The stakes? A potential $11 billion per year worldwide demand for solar energy. According to a report in Business 2.0,1 this 21st century opportunity rivals the computer revolution of the 20th century.
The goal? To make solar power as cheap as fossil fuel.

The reason most people haven’t heard of this revolution is that it is still in its very early stages. But high-tech revolutions move fast, and it’s not too early to think about the implications. When semiconductor chips were coming into their own in the 1970s, most people had never heard of them. When the IBM PC debuted in the early ‘80s, suddenly everyone was talking about them. The same will be true for the new solar technology.

Among the players are:

  • Those who make the silicon substrate, on which solar cells are based.
  • Those who design and build those cells with new technology.
  • Those who supply the capital and additional outside expertise to make the dream a reality.

New names and big names are involved. For example, SolFocus, supported by Xerox PARC, is making a cutting-edge solar cell that concentrates the sun’s rays with lenses, ramping up efficiency to previously undreamed-of levels. According to the Science & Technology section of the website, SolFocus recently received $25 million in venture capital.2

Solaicx makes the actual silicon wafers on which those cells are based. The world’s largest chip-equipment maker, Applied Materials, gave Solaicx $3 million last fall to expand its production and then quietly began to retask some of its huge fabrication plants where flat-panel video displays are now made into factories to produce the solar wafers.

But those are just two of the players in what promises to be an extremely competitive game that will change the face of energy technology far into the future...

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