Addressing Solar’s Biggest Challenge

What is solar technology’s biggest challenge today? That’s easy.


Long before 1971, before the first calculator or Speak ‘n Spell rolled off an assembly line, early chip-makers like Texas Instruments and Intel knew they would succeed because of scaling.

Scaling was inherent in Gordon Moore’s famous “Electronics” paper of 1965, the one which included the prediction which history records as “Moore’s Law.” The planar process could be reproduced, and steadily improved.

Today’s solar industry is slightly different from the chip business, because while we’re certain of demand for what comes out of the factory, we’re uncertain as to which process and which solar technology, will eventually win. But scaling now is protection for the future. Getting big now means you may be able to buy the new technology tomorrow, because with demand proven, it’s bound to be expensive.

That’s why Nanosolar is scaling up its CIGS technology, and why MiaSole has brought Intel in to scale its CIGS technology.

But here’s where it gets tricky, and where our paths diverge. Chip companies in 1971 knew they had the right technology platform, that all they needed to do was scale. If a really big company can scale a completely different solar technology, even large solar companies like First Solar are still very vulnerable.      

That’s why announcements like this one from GE deserve attention. GE said it bought the rest of PrimeStar Solar, in which it’s held a controlling stake since 2008, and that (more important) it can deliver CIGS technology at 13% efficiency (about 50% better than rivals) using cadmium telluride (CdTe), a crystalline lattice already used in things like infrared and radiation detectors

GE has already set plans to build a manufacturing plant capable of producing 400 Mwatts/year – about half of what NanoSolar says it’s aiming at.

All of which means we have a great technology race on our hands in thin film:

  • Will CIGS’ thin-film printing process prove both cheaper than CdTe with competitive efficiency?

  • Will another tech giant (Intel, perhaps) buy one of the smaller California thin-film players to eliminate GE’s advantage in capitalization?

  • What about China and Germany? Might they license GE’s CdTe technology and take the new market offshore?

  • What happens to raw materials prices as these technologies scale?
  • Could a patent trade war emerge, given the importance of such breakthroughs?

Oh, and note I just said thin film. I haven’t even mentioned polysilicon solar panels, which are even more efficient than the CdTe thin-film GE promises. 

This much seems clear. All this competition is going to drive costs down, prices down, capital requirements up and production way up, and (based on history) probably faster than you can now imagine.

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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog,, in 2007.

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