Thursday, February 16, 2006

Affordable Solar Energy?

We've all heard that renewables simply can't compete in terms of price, but a new partnership between the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and SolFocus, Inc. will be working to destroy that myth. From their press release:
The Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) today announced a partnership with SolFocus, Inc., a manufacturer of low-cost solar energy systems which will employ PARC technology to cut the cost of solar power by as much as half.

The venture builds on the original SolFocus design for concentrator photovoltaic technology. CPV technology creates electricity by using precision optical components such as lenses and mirrors to direct and “concentrate” sunlight onto high-efficiency solar cells. SolFocus’ prototype solar panels are smaller, cheaper, and easier to manufacture than the flat-plate photovoltaic panels that currently dominate the market.

PARC is contributing core patents and long-term technology development support for current and next-generation product lines in exchange for royalties and equity in SolFocus.

The venture is a result of PARC’s “clean technologies” initiative, a research program designed to focus on key areas of renewable energy. It employs PARC’s unique multidisciplinary approach to develop fresh ways to solve energy challenges, including solar energy generation; energy distribution, reduction and conservation; and contamination monitoring.

Gary Conley, SolFocus chief executive officer, said, “We value PARC’S commitment to developing clean technology and the collaborative way it innovates. We teamed with PARC to help improve our first product concept and to accelerate a second-generation product that promises even greater performance.

“The first-generation panels will break price barriers in the market, but the second-generation panels with PARC technology will change the market for solar dramatically,” he said. “The current installed cost of the flat-plate photovoltaic systems is about $7 per watt, but our approach should produce electricity for about half that amount – or less.”
According to the companies' press materials, the solar concentrator technology avoids problems with traditional PV and "thin-film" solar materials by using much less silicon, and producing a very high energy conversion: up to 40%. It looks like these would be ideal for small-scale installation, possibly making distributed generation a more attractive alternative (though the press materials also mention field-installed systems). Joel Makower has thoughts on this development, also.

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