In any emerging, unpredictable market there are always early developers eager to establish themselves as the next McDonald’s or Microsoft. Look at the dot.com boom. We had a plethora of search engines all with the promise of optimizing your inquiry. Catchy ads guaranteed to streamline your search came out of the cyber works; “Search with Express.com, all you need to do is press a key, and we will find your destination!!!”, or “use Gaggle.com as your search engine, we’ll f*@kin read your mind!!!!!”, or my favorite, “Try Dinkle.net for your searches, all you have to do is exist and we will take care of your life for you!!!!”. Well, none of these search engines actually existed as far as I know, but the contrived hyperbole illustrates my point. There is always a shotgun blast of rice paper companies hoping to hit a goose. Most of them end up as pellets lodged in an old, dry stump somewhere in South Dakota, but the lucky few get to eat roasted bird.
The budding solar industry is no exception. Many solar companies have already come and gone, and others are struggling to stay afloat in the hemorrhaging economy now afflicting us. I’m sure the reasons are as diverse as anything business, ranging from poor management, high production costs, shit technology, underfunding, or just plain victims of the bad economy. On the flip-side, the current climate may be ripe for acquisitions, and Google-scale-type industry establishment. “Some may rise and some may fall, but black people will never know themselves until their backs against the wall.” Sorry, reggae lyrics, losing focus. Haahmmm.
Today there are some standouts in the solar industry including First Solar, to my knowledge, the cheapest per watt producer, Suntech based in China, SolarWorld, a German company with a manufacturing plant in Hillsboro, SunPower based in California and I’m sure many others I don’t care to research on right now. A couple more may be added to the list soon.
Nanosolar, another thin film company like First Solar (although using CIGS technology rather than First Solar’s CdTe), recently began operation of a fully automated production facility near Berlin, Germany. The plant has the potential to produce over 600 MW of panels a year, although right now it produces about 1 MW a month because of the current economic conditions.
Martin Roscheisen, Nanosolar’s CEO, says their product will be competitive with other companies because the panels will be cheaper to produce and have a greater efficiency over other thin film technologies, namely First Solar. In sunny locations, power plants using Nanosolar panels could produce electricity for five to six cents per kilowatt hour, nearing the cost of coal plant electricity.
Another sunny splash in the industry sees the arrival of the China-based firm Centron. They recently leased a 25,000 square foot warehouse to store solar panels shipped directly from China. Ocean Yuan, the president of Centron, believes they can undercut existing PV prices with their unique business model. The panels will be manufactured by a group of companies based in China and later sold and distributed under the U.S. brand Centron. Yuan’s goal is to sell the panels at $1 per watt within a few years, which would allow them to be directly competitive with coal power.
There are many questions surrounding these new ventures like whether Nanosolar can undercut existing solar companies to be competitive and whether Centron, although potentially extremely cheap, can out-compete established, reliable companies like SolarWorld who already have a name for quality.
It is unlikely that all of the current solar energy companies, even some of the big ones mentioned above will exist in five years time. In the end, as in so many things, money will decide the outcome of the happy little dogfight brewing in the back alley. There will be other factors that play a role, but the first company to produce a reliable, large-scale product that’s as cheap as coal produced energy and without government subsidies will surely be eating goose for dinner.