Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Solar Show Is Big, Energized; Trends Emerging

Part 1 of a two-part report

Solar Power International '08 in San Diego has been a good conference and exhibition so far, but aside from being noticeably larger than last year's show in Long Beach, most of the exhibition's content was existing or modified versions of existing technology. Still, there were some new things and I could see trends shifting.

The opening plenary sessions featured some heavyweights including Gen. Wesley Clark (ret.), Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Nasdaq OMX CEO Robert Greifeld, and of course, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders. Their comments likely can be found elsewhere on the Internet.

During the first day of exhibiting on Tuesday, interest seemed heightened by the extension of the federal solar investment tax credits included in the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 which passed and signed into law Oct. 3. (See story below.)

There were a couple of innovative solar panel variations that caught my eye. A Japanese maker Kaneka showed a prototype of a hybrid panel using both amorphous silicon (a-Si) and crystal silicon solar cells. The idea is to reduce cost per watt, of course, but also kick up the efficiency over a straight a-Si panel. Although the company intends to market the hybrid panel next year, no spec sheets were available at this time. Lumeta Solar of Irvine, CA offers the PowerPly, a 4 x 8 foot 380W crystalline panel that adheres to virtually all flat roof types (commercial or industrial applications). By sticking to roofs it eliminates racking and roof penetrations while it reduces installation time as much as 50%. The PowerPly uses a transparent Teflon cover sheet instead of glass thus reducing weight, heat build-up, and chances of cracking. At only 1 cm thick, water ponding on a roof is minimized.

Coincidentally also from Irvine, is a product that has to go in the "Wow" category. It's the Fisker Karma hybrid sports car with an optional, full-length solar roof. The Karma will do 0-60 mph in 5.8 seconds but only has a 50-mile range per charge on lithium-ion batteries. To be offered fourth quarter next year, the Karma will be built in Finland and priced at $80,000. (Evidently, the car moves so quietly the company will be offering optional interior and exterior speakers with a menu of "car noises." I kid you not.) Although the Karma exhibit was small and cluttered, it was hard to miss.

As for trends, I noticed several more thin-film companies exhibiting beside the grandpa of thin-films, UniSolar. These included Opti-Solar, Applied Materials (selling turnkey thin-film fabrication units) and Ascent Solar. First Solar, Miasole and Nanosolar were absent for reasons of their own. Thin-film PV breakthroughs in various configurations are definitely reducing PV costs per watt; in some cases low enough to make the lower efficiencies--characteristic of thin-film PV--a non-issue.

Another trend is towards more concentrating solar variations but CPV is targeted for huge utility-grade projects.


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