Improving cell efficiency is making solar power the new sunrise business.
Posted May 21, 2008on:
Ashok Sinha , a veteran of the semiconductor industry, has an clear view of the bottlenecks in the solar cell business. He believes that the industry is now blind to the shortage and unviable cost of polysilicon, its most essential raw material. Sinha has set up a company to explore his ideas — reducing the cost of silicon from $3 (Rs 120) a kilo to $1 (Rs 40) a kilo. “I know from the chip industry’s example that a high price differential is necessary between the raw material and the finished product,” he says.
Sinha is among several Valley veterans who have moved into solar power start-ups. One can find these for every part of the value chain — creating efficient solar cells, developing better production processes or, as in Sinha’s case, producing the raw material itself. The global market for photovoltaic cells is around $1.5 billion (Rs 6,000 crore). By 2020, the industry expects to employ over 150,000 people. The revolution over in the Valley is being felt in India too. Here, a host of companies are increasingly investing in renewable forms of energy and, in particular, solar power.
Globally, solar cell efficiency is improving even as its set-up prices fall. The Valley’s Sunpower produces the most efficient silicon photovoltaic cell in the world, which operates at 21 per cent efficiency (percentage of energy from sunlight that is converted into electricity). The theoretical maximum is 28 per cent. Spectrolab, a subsidiary of Boeing, makes non-silicon solar cells that reach 40 per cent efficiency. Last week, Konarka, a start-up from Boston, made the world’s most efficient plastic solar cell (6.5 per cent efficiency). Even though these are less productive, they can be cheaply and easily deployed on rooftops. Sunpower is another company to watch. It’s growing annually by 50 per cent and plans on doubling its manufacturing capacity. It is also setting up a second plant in the Philippines. India is next on the list. “India’s large market is always an attraction,” says Sunpower’s Vice-president Surinder Bedi.