Energy 2.0

Solaria: Finding Clever Ways to Make Cheaper Solar Panels

Posted on: May 21, 2008

The type of silicon used in photovoltaic panels is expensive, and as long as supply is constrained, the price of electricity produced by solar panels won’t be as cheap as it could be. This high price for silicon has benefits; it is an incentive for more companies to start producing the stuff, but in an industry that sees very fast growth, it is hard to catch up with demand.

In the meantime, others are working on ways to reduce the amount of silicon required in solar panels. Solaria is one of those. Their solar cells produce about 90% of a conventional solar panel’s power, while using half as much silicon.

How do they do it? It’s not quite as out there as hairy solar panels and moth-eyes, but it’s clever: “Ordinarily, the silicon in a solar panel spans its surface, collecting light from as much area as possible. But Solaria slices the silicon into thin strips and spaces them apart so that they only account for about half the panel’s area. A clear molded plastic cover collects light from the entire panel and funnels it to the strips of silicon.” See below for two pics that illustrates the concept.

The savings occur because the molded plastic is less expensive than the silicon that is saved, and because Solaria uses equipment that has already been developed by the semiconductor industry instead of trying to develop its own (see pic of robotic arm below).

They claim that their first products will be competitive in price with panels produced by much larger companies, and that successive product generations will cost between 10-30% less than their competitors.

Another benefit of Solaria’s approach over traditional solar panels is that the space between the silicon strips can be used to route the wires that collect the electricity, thus taking them out of the sun’s way.

To date, Solaria has raised $77 million to develop its technology, with the world’s largest solar cell maker, Q-Cell, acting as a primary investor.

We wish them the best of luck, and we’re happy to see yet another approach to making solar cheaper. There is no silver bullet.

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