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Putting the spotlight on solar power

Posted: 17 Mar 2010 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:solar power? photovoltaic? solar cell?

Adams: Like the auto companies, the solar industry will presumably follow its own evolutionary path.

In some ways the companies that produce solar panels and modules for generating electricity resemble automobile companies of 90 to 100 years ago. Back then, there were hundreds of automobile manufacturers exploiting practically any technology that would propel a wheeled land vehiclesteam, internal combustion and even electricity. Today numerous solar companies use multiple technologies to generate electricity. Like the auto companies, this industry will presumably follow its own evolutionary path. Here we look closely at four diverse companies with their roots in the United States and Europe to see where they are now and where they may be heading.

First Solar is best known for having signed a memorandum of agreement (not yet a contract) with the China government for what will eventually be a 2GW solar field near the city of Ordos in Inner Mongolia. Originally strictly a manufacturing company, First Solar grew in the past two years by acquiring two project development firms. Its largest manufacturing plant is in Malaysia; others are in Ohio and in Germany.

First Solar assembly line
[Photo courtesy First Solar.].

First Solar produces thin-film solar cells using cadmium telluride (CdTe). Their technology is thus not silicon-based and is relatively inexpensive to manufacture. The panels are fixed in place (that is, they do not track the sun), and may be on rooftops or in solar arrays planted in the earth. Except in Germany, where the feed-in tariff is high, the company avoids residential installations, although they have a partnership with Solar City in the western United States for residential and small commercial installations.

An important number in any solar technology is its efficiencythe percentage of incoming sunlight that is converted into electricity. CdTe technology has efficiencies that tend to be on the low end of the scale; First Solar currently quotes 11 percent. But the cost per watt of electricity generated is very low. CdTe cells produce reasonable levels of electricity when the sun is low or when there is modest cloud cover or air-borne dust. Currently the company's biggest development outside of the south-western United States is in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, a chilly and damp location on Lake Huron. One assumes advances in CdTe technology are possible, but the company tends not to discuss such matters.

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