Solar cos that eschewed silicon step up their game

DALLAS Fri Oct 21, 2011 5:04am IST

eSolar's first commercial solar power plant in the desert city of Lancaster, California is seen on its opening day August 5, 2009. REUTERS/Nichola Groom/Files

eSolar's first commercial solar power plant in the desert city of Lancaster, California is seen on its opening day August 5, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Nichola Groom/Files

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DALLAS (Reuters) - As prices on silicon-based solar panels continue to plummet, makers of alternative technologies are tweaking their products and in some cases shifting strategy altogether to make sure they are not left behind in the race to make solar competitive with fossil fuels.

From start-ups such as Miasole and eSolar to industry heavyweights like First Solar Inc, solar companies that use raw materials other than polysilicon are working to preserve both their competitive positions and their survival.

"We've stepped up our game," said Jim Lamon, senior vice president for engineering, procurement and construction at First Solar, the world's most valuable solar company.

Though First Solar makes the lowest-cost solar panels in the world using cadmium telluride as its raw material, Lamon said the company is nevertheless squeezing out costs for other system components. And because its in-house construction teams use the same products in every project, Lamon said that gives them an efficiency edge over other solar project developers.

"We are hell-bent on keeping that wide margin," Lamon said in an interview.

It is the goal of solar manufacturers to bring down the price of solar power so that it can be more competitive with dirtier energy sources. However, this year's dramatic fall in the price of silicon-based panels has squeezed their profits and margins even while it made their products more affordable and competitive with other technologies.

Up-and-coming solar companies that lack the scale of either First Solar or the leading silicon-based panel makers are under even more pressure to finally bring a product to market that can compete with ever-cheaper traditional modules. At the same time, weak capital markets have made fundraising for companies with unproven technologies more challenging than ever.

"The market in general is resistant to new technologies that don't have a strong balance sheet behind them," said John Van Scoter, chief executive of eSolar Inc, which makes modular solar thermal power plants.

PRICE CONUNDRUM

Many small, privately held solar companies were founded when the price of polysilicon was in the hundreds of dollars per kilogram and the industry was looking for alternatives that would bring down the cost of renewable power more quickly.

Today, however, the rise of China as a major player in solar has helped send the price of solar-grade silicon to about $40 per kg, while prices on traditional solar modules have slumped as much as 40 percent this year alone.

"Trying to differentiate on technology in an industry that is focused on price is tough," said Chaim Lubin, an associate in investment bank Lincoln International's solar practice.

The likes of Evergreen Solar Inc and Solyndra learned that lesson the hard way. Both companies had been scaling up production of silicon-light solar products and were caught flat-footed when the price of silicon-based panels collapsed this year. Both filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the last two months.

At Miasole, a photovoltaic solar startup that uses copper indium gallium selenide as its raw material, a "cultural shift" is under way to transform the company -- which until recently was laser-focused on developing its technology -- into a nimble and efficient manufacturer, according to its vice president of marketing, Rob DeLine.

Miasole earlier this year struck a deal with Intel Corp under which the chipmaker provides training and expertise to help the solar company improve manufacturing and lower costs. Then, about a month ago, former Intel manufacturing chief Bob Baker joined Miasole as its president.

With Intel's help, Miasole produced record quantities of its product in the third quarter, DeLine said, and its output has become more predictable.

"Technology guys like to turn the knobs on a machine and discover stuff, and manufacturing guys like to freeze the dial on that same machine and run it day in and day out and have predictability," DeLine said in an interview.

Another venture-backed startup -- with an entirely different technology -- said it prepared early for an increasingly tough competitive climate.

"We saw it coming," said eSolar's Van Scoter.

That's because last year, NRG Energy Inc switched to solar projects that had intended to use eSolar technology to cheaper photovoltaic panels, spurring Van Scoter to action.

First, eSolar made a strategic shift to develop power storage capabilities for its power plants using molten salt technology. Then, this year it secured General Electric Co as a strategic investor. GE is also incorporating eSolar's technology into a hybrid solar and natural gas power plant offering.

As more of eSolar's technology is deployed, costs will come down and the company will build stand-alone power plants that are competitive with fossil fuels, Van Scoter said.

(Additional reporting by Matt Daily in Dallas, editing by Matthew Lewis)

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