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Nanosolar to build world's largest solar cell factory in Bay Area (!)

Roscheisen.jpg
Martin Roscheisen
Forgive the exclamation point. But this could be one of the greatest Silicon Valley stories this year.

Martin Roscheisen, the chief executive of Nanosolar, emailed us Monday to tell us he has finally done it. He has succeeded in taking far-out nanotechnology and applying it to solar cells in a way that promises to work commercially.

This is significant because all solar cells until now have been made from clunky, crystalline silicon. That's why you get these big old thick solar panels that some think are an eyesore. More importantly though, they have remained expensive, which is why you need states to subsidize solar projects. And lately, they've been in short supply, driving up costs even more. Martin's company, Nanosolar, has developed solar cells so thin you can paint them onto a piece of foil (click on video below). It uses a copper alloy, called CIGS (Copper Indium Gallium Diselenide). The resulting cells are efficient as traditional silicon cells, but can be manufactured at one-fifth the cost.

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Printed solar cells (CNN)
In short, he's promising a revolution of sorts, just when we need one. If all goes well, it will make solar a more economical alternative energy source, and will help save the environment without costing us and arm and a leg. True, the proof will be in the pudding, and we'll first see the cells emerge from the factory next year. But his announcements, scheduled announced tomorrow (Wednesday), are promising:

First, after a four-year race to get a working product out, he's now building the world's largest factory for making solar cells right here in the Bay Area -- to be finished this year.

Second, to help, he has raised $75 million more in venture capital.

We've been on vacation, and so we handed the story to our environmental reporter, Paul Rogers. Here is the story, to be published in tomorrow's Mercury News.

We met Roscheisen two summers ago, when he was putting his team together, and had started a race against other players doing similar things, including Konarka on the East Coast. We haven't heard much from those players.

Roscheisen, 37, was an early dot-com pioneer, having sold Internet company eGroups to Yahoo for $432 million in 2000 during what he says was ''my other life.'' (That's when he worked with the brother of Google co-founder Larry Page; indeed, Larry and Sergey have both invested in Nanosolar).

As he told us the story a couple of years ago, he was kicking around for his next business idea, and found most software and Internet technologies were well covered by other companies. But he noticed how much he was paying for inefficient heating bills and at the gas pump to fill up the guzzling Mercedes-Benz G500 he bought from Sequoia venture capitalist Michael Moritz. Traveling the world, and inquiring about how to develop better energy sources, he fell upon the idea for Nanosolar.

For Roscheisen, the change of industries is a family tradition. His great great grandfather founded the Germany's first regional electricity utility, still powering Bavaria today -- but only after he first built a construction company.

Within the next two to six weeks, Nanosolar will select either San Jose, Santa Clara or San Francisco for the facility -- which will churn out 430 megawatts a year of solar cells -- almost tripling the entire wattage produced elsewhere in the U.S.!

The Merc piece doesn't mention much about the funding, so here it is: Beside existing investors Mohr Davidow Ventures, Benchmark Capital, Onpoint and Mitsui, the number of new investors is large:

--SAC Capital and GLG Partners, two world-class investment funds with substantial PV industry investment experience;
--Swiss Re, the insurance sector leader of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index;
--Grazia Equity, the original backer of Conergy AG, the world's largest PV system integrator;
--Christian Reitberger, the original backer of Q-Cells, the world's largest independent silicon cell PV manufacturer;
-- Capricorn Management, the investment arm of Jeff Skoll, known for its support of clean energy causes;
--the investment arms of SAP founders Klaus Tschira and Dietmar Hopp, and
--Beck, a leading PV power plant system integrator.


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Comments

I heard that the technology was invented by Chris Eberspacher (current VP of Nanosolar). Efficiency of its module is around 7%. Any comments?

YY on June 22, 2006 11:25 AM
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>This is significant because all solar cells until now have been made from clunky, crystalline silicon.

Not true. For years amorphous silicon solar cells have been available from Energy Conversion Devices in Detroit and Iowa Thin Film. The small solar cells on calculators and watches are made from amorphous silicon.

>That's why you get these big old thick solar panels that some think are an eyesore.

Also not true. Solar panels are big because you need a large area to generate a large power. Unless efficiency jumps up (which is not something Nanosolar promises), then their technology will not change this fact. Solar cells printed on foil can be lighter and thinner but you can already order such solar cells *right now* from ECD and Iowa Thin Film.

What Nanosolar is offering that is novel is a solar cell manufacturing technology that is all solution-based and does not require expensive vacuum systems. This distinction has gotten, ahem, a bit obscured in the Merc's coverage.

>The resulting cells are efficient as traditional silicon cells, but can be manufactured at one-fifth the cost.

We'll know if they can make cheap, efficient solar cells that way when the first product ships.

Alison Chaiken on June 22, 2006 11:49 AM
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Thanks for your comments Alison. Two words the vc's can't resist are 'nano' and 'solar.' It's good to get some perspective amidst the hype.

David Marcus on June 22, 2006 12:25 PM
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There are so many interesting solar start-ups out there. Does anyone know anything about Solyndra? Information is hard to come by. Appears that it may be similar to Miasole (sputtered CIGS thin film technology)?

Nicole Rutherford on June 22, 2006 3:54 PM
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Galium Arsenide solar conversion semiconductors are the next wave. Besides the copper indium there is indium phosphate and a host of other doping agents to change the specific band of the solar technology. All have big advantages of being very robust semiconductors and all have disadvantages of being very difficult to manufacture. One thing is sure, they convert VC money in hype as fast as solar flux into electricity.

ALNRG on June 22, 2006 9:36 PM
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This is fantastic! Finally some good news. Now if only we could get someone to come up with a great storage battery and figure out a way for superconductivity to occur at room temperatures. I live out in the country and I used to be able to smell pine trees almost all the time. Now it comes and goes. In reality, no one is going to give up their cars but at the same time we are burning all the fuel to move around the planet. These three things would go a long way into helping us solve the transportation problem.

Patrick Lim on June 22, 2006 10:46 PM
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re: Gallium Arsenide ... next wave. Spreading acres of arsenic doped material which could eventually leach into the soil and groundwater due to exposure and the elements (rain, hail etc.) does not sound like a very smart approach. At least Indium and SiGe avoid this.

Michael Graebner on June 23, 2006 11:08 AM
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re: Gallium Arsenide ... next wave. Spreading acres of arsenic doped material which could eventually leach into the soil and groundwater due to exposure and the elements (rain, hail etc.) does not sound like a very smart approach. At least Indium and SiGe avoid this.

Michael Graebner on June 23, 2006 11:09 AM
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I think if what they [NanoSolar] says is true, then the cost per kw will be on par with fossil fuels.

That being said... game over, especially when you throw available solar/renewable subsidies on top of it, then you will have net energy costs CHEAPER than traditional energy sources.

There's the bottom line, period.

Also, it will subsequently remove a lot of the hurdles in production of other renewables such as hydrogen, where the biggest roadblocks were distribution points and the fact electricity used in production would still have ultimately been sourced from fossil fuels. With cheap solar, the distribution AND manufacture of hydrogen can be very modular and 99% green.

Ben on June 24, 2006 8:29 AM
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Now we can explore extracting hydrogen from these cheap panels which will be spread onto building materials, hills, parking lots, etc.. Therefore, we can explore on-site hydrogen into fuel cells for a 24/7 power scenario. Good Bye, Utility companies, your game is over, at least within the next 10 years!!! The 3rd world can also be economically financeable for investors to create power for remote villages worldwide powering refrigerators (to sustain medicines!, Mr. Gates) lighting and most importantly, computers. To me, this 3rd coming of PV is truly awe-inspiring. Thank you,Martin, you are using your money well!!!
Sam...NJ

Sam Salamay on June 29, 2006 6:22 AM
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That being said... game over, especially when you throw available solar/renewable subsidies on top of it, then you will have net energy costs CHEAPER than traditional energy sources.

Not quite. While being able to roll-print solar cells is an important milestone - on par with the Gutenburg printing press, IMHO - solar faces one serious hurdle: the US consumes roughly 100 quadrillion BTUs of energy from all sources annually. A quadrillion is a 1 followed by 15 zeros (usually: The British quadrillion is a 1 followed by 24 zeros but I'm being charitable here). This works out to roughly 3,352,449 MW of power. It would only take ~7800 years for the Nanosolar plant to replace all other forms of energy but I'm afraid that doesn't count as "game over" quite yet.

Orion on June 30, 2006 9:15 AM
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Orion -- muliply by about 5. PV watts have a capacity factor of around 20% or so. :-)

How *long* will it take nanosolar to build a 430MW factory? If the factory produces 430MW in 2007, then, yes, it may triple US PV production. But if the factory doesn't finish ramping up until 2010, then it'll be a nice big factory but it won't dominate the landscape.

cesium62 on June 30, 2006 6:05 PM
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I need all the information about the amorphous silicon solar cells technology to buy it to establish a project in my country
Thanks

mazin altaee on July 29, 2006 3:09 AM
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Always bear in mind these factors: $/WT, conversion rate, size. All three needs to be there in order for solar technology to be really acceptable. There is a company out there which found the ideal material. I would not label the buzz around Nanosolar as hype but since better companies still need time to grow, so far CIGS may look good. But then again, have not yet seen anything out of Nanosolar

Pete on August 7, 2006 10:38 AM
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I find it hard to belive it will be the largest in the world. Is that right?

homemade solar on August 11, 2006 5:32 AM
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That's what they say. We are staying close to this story, so stay tuned.

Matt Marshall on August 11, 2006 5:37 AM
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