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Sunlight is a ubiquitous form
of energy, but not as yet an
economic one. In the first of two
Silicon Valley sunrise
he Sun provides Earth with as much installed solar cells have a capacity of about

features, Oliver Morton looks energy every hour as human civiliza- five gigawatts. That looks small compared
at how interest in photovoltaic tion uses every year. If you are a solar- with almost 400 gigawatts for nuclear power
energy enthusiast, that says it all. No and much more than 1,000 gigawatts for coal.
research is heating up in other energy supply could conceivably be as And that’s before taking into account the fact
California’s Silicon Valley. In the plentiful as the 120,000 terawatts the Sun pro- that solar cells do not produce electricity at
vides ceaselessly and unbidden. If the tiniest their peak rating all the time. Even within the
second, Carina Dennis talks to fraction of that sunlight were to be captured world of renewables, solar is dwarfed by wind
Australian researchers hoping by photovoltaic cells that turn it straight into power and hydroelectricity, simply because
electricity, there would be no need to emit any the technology is much more expensive. And
to harness the dawn Sun’s heat. greenhouse gases from any power plant. expert opinion does not expect growth in the
Thanks to green thoughts like that, and to field to change the picture very much: a 25%
generous subsidies from governments in Japan annual growth in installed capacity for the
and Germany, the solar-cell market has been next 15 years would still see solar photovoltaics
growing on average by a heady 31% a year for producing just 1% of the world’s energy.
the past decade (see chart, overleaf). One of the
most bullish industry analysts, Michael Rogol, Points of view
sees the industry increasing from about US$12 Reconciling the solar-cell industry’s optimism
billion in 2005 to as much as $70 billion in 2010. with global indifference is basically a mat-
Although not everyone predicts such impres- ter of perspective. Seen from the viewpoint
sive growth, a 20–25% annual rise is widely of a small industry, solar’s recent decade of
expected. The market for shares in solar-energy expansion is indeed extraordinary. But even
companies is correspondingly buoyant. heady growth is not enough to spur a radical
And yet in the projections of energy supply overhaul of energy infrastructure when you
made by policy analysts and climate wonks, start such a long way behind your competi-
solar remains so marginal as to be barely on tors. So, although no one doubts that solar
the map at all. At the moment, the world’s total electricity will become cheaper in the future,
©2006 Nature Publishing Group

computers go from hobbyists’ workshops to


almost a billion of the world’s desks in 30 years

is not fazed by the small size of the solar mar-
ket today, but energized by the possibilities of
It’s also a help that Silicon Valley is sunny not
just in its outlook; a solar cell in California can
produce almost twice as much electricity a year
as one in the Ruhr.

Catching the rays

The poster child for Silicon Valley’s interest
in solar power is a company called Nanosolar,
based in a distinctly unimposing one-storey
building next to Palo Alto’s municipal airfield.
Disappointingly, it has no solar panels on its
roof, although there is a smattering of Prius
hybrids in its parking lot.
Nanosolar was founded in 2001 by Brian
Sager, a biotech veteran with expertise in
intellectual property, and Martin Roscheisen,
an Austrian entrepreneur who mixes grandi-
loquence, enthusiasm and edginess. Like many
Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Roscheisen had
Lighting the way: Chris Eberspacher has developed a relatively low-cost way to manufacture solar cells. a good track record: companies he had had a
founding role in had sold for more than a bil-
few expect it to do so fast enough to force One attraction is technological familiar- lion dollars. And Nanosolar quickly attracted
radical change. ity. Solar power has grown up in the shadow ‘angel’ investors with powerful reputations,
Few worldwide, that is. In California’s Silicon of the chip industry, using its cast-off including the founders of Google. In 2002, it
Valley, the corridor of land along the southwest materials and technologies. The silicon in became the first solar company to raise money
side of San Francisco Bay, the outlook is more traditional solar cells comes from the same on Sand Hill Road, Palo Alto’s superconcentra-
optimistic. Home first to the semiconductor suppliers who feed the chip market; new tech- tion of venture-capital firms.
boom and then to the Internet boom, the val- niques to make solar cells often use processing Nanosolar was not founded with one spe-
ley is perhaps the most fertile environment for technology, such as chemical vapour deposi- cific solar technology in mind, says Rosche-
new technologies in the world. As well as an tion, that is already widely used in the produc- isen. That’s just as well, because the range of
extraordinary density of successful technol- tion of integrated circuits. Miasolé, a Silicon technologies it spent its first years investigating
ogy-based companies, it boasts world-class Valley solar start-up in which Kleiner Perkins have not as yet panned out. The ‘nano’ in the
research universities, abundant capital, and a has invested, uses expertise derived from the company’s name reflected an early belief that
cultural fixation on getting to the future first manufacture of computer hard drives. the use of very small structures would allow
and making money from it. The bust But there is a broader cultural attraction, novel photovoltaics made of organic molecules
of 2000 did relatively little to dent the valley’s too. The potential of solar power to decentral- to overcome certain difficulties, such as being
fundamental strengths and attitudes; instead, ize energy generation — a potential shared, to able to transfer charge only over very short dis-
it left the area’s entrepreneurs and venture a lesser extent, by wind power — appeals to a tances. But the founders soon concluded that
capitalists looking for somewhere else to put culture that places huge societal significance “the organic part was going to require a number
their millions. on the empowering spread of the Internet. of years to mature”, says Chris Eberspacher, the
‘Cleantech’ of all sorts, from water purifica- And a business community that saw personal company’s vice-president of engineering. “And
tion to biofuels, is currently the even when mature it would not


place they want to be. In 2005, THE BOOM GOES ON be very efficient, and not be very
$1.6 billion in venture capital durable.”
went into cleantech, a growth of That was where Eberspacher
35% year on year according to 1,500 came in. He had been a solar
Consumer products
the Cleantech Venture Network, Communication and signals aficionado since a school trip to
an umbrella group. The high-pro- Off-grid power the University of Texas, Austin;
file venture-capital firm Kleiner Centralized power instead of being awestruck by
Perkins Caulfield and Byers is Grid-connected the Texas Turbulent Tokamak
putting $100 million of its latest fusion experiment being shown
Market size (MW)

$600-million investment fund to potential students, he found

into cleantech start-ups. Bill Joy, himself drawn to the ramshackle
a partner at Kleiner Perkins who alternative-technologies centre
used to be chief scientist at Sun across the street. Eberspacher
Microsystems, says that the firm went on to become head of
will look at perhaps 1,000 differ- research and development at
ent cleantech ideas in the next Arco, once the largest maker of
year. And amid all these oppor- solar cells in the world, before
tunities, photovoltaics seem to 0 starting a company of his own.
resonate most with Silicon Val- 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 When Nanosolar had trouble
ley’s history and culture. getting its organic technologies
©2006 Nature Publishing Group

to work, the company leaders looked panel displays — acquired the rights

around for something less risky that to ways of making thin-film silicon-
they could get to work in the medium based photovoltaics developed in
term. They had capital; Eberspacher Germany. And Nanosys, a Palo Alto
had technologies that, while still firm, is working on nanostructures
innovative, were considerably more that could minimize current difficul-
tried and tested than those Nanosolar ties with the sort of organic polymer-
had been working on. He licensed the based solar cells that Nanosolar was
technologies to them and joined up looking at in its early days.
in 2005. The valley does not have a monop-
That technology is now being scaled oly on innovation. DayStar, based in
up for production at Nanosolar’s first Halfmoon, New York, is also pursuing
factory, which aims to produce more CIGS thin films, as is Wurth Solar in
than 200 megawatts of solar cells in Germany. In Austin, Texas, B. J. Stan-
its first year and 430 megawatts a bery has founded a company called
year later. That would make it among Heliovolt. Stanbery, who has been
the largest solar-cell fabrication working with CIGS thin films since
facilities in the world, and by far the the early 1980s, when they were first
largest devoted to this sort of ‘thin- under development at Boeing, has
film’ solar cell. developed techniques for printing
Traditional silicon solar cells are such films on a variety of substrates,
made out of chunks of silicon 200 speeding up their manufacture. In
micrometres thick or more, but sliv- Lowell, Massachusetts, a company
ers a single micrometre across can called Konarka is working on a novel
suffice for a ‘CIGS’ thin film. CIGS system for using dyes to produce solar
cells are made up of copper, indium, power from flexible plastics. The inter-
gallium and selenium. Even though action of sunlight with these organic
some of those elements are increas- dyes produces solar power in a way
ingly expensive — the price of cop- that is perhaps more similar to pho-
per has more than tripled in the past tosynthesis than to the semiconductor
four years and the price of indium has processes in normal solar cells.
shot up by a factor of ten — they are
used in such sparing amounts that Measuring up
this is not too great a problem. But even if one or more of these com-
What is a problem is that making Thin-film solar cells can be made continuously using a roll printer. panies manages to make solar cells a
very thin layers of CIGS has often great deal cheaper, it will be only the
been a complicated and expensive business, are nanometres across means that the company beginning. Manufacturing the cells accounts
typically involving carefully controlled vapours is still accurately named — although more by for just half of the roughly $6 per watt it costs
being laid on to surfaces kept in vacuums. “The luck than judgement. to get a solar-cell system up and running. The
silicon [photovoltaic] industry got founded Perhaps the most attractive aspect of the remaining cost is needed to put them into a pro-
on a wafer technology we inherited from the Nanosolar process is that it can be carried out tective, mountable module, tune their output
integrated-circuit industry,” says Eberspacher, on foil being continuously pulled off one roll from direct current to alternating current, and
“and the thin-film photovoltaic industry got on to another, allowing very high throughput. install them.
founded on deposition techniques inherited Such ‘roll-to-roll’ technologies make it pos- This has various implications. One is that
from them in the same way.” But expenses sible to build a large factory with a relatively cells below about 10% efficiency have a hard
that are reasonable for materials that process small investment and make time making economic sense,
information are too high for materials that cells cheaply. Roscheisen boasts because the costs of mount-
process energy. that the production costs for
“The business ing and installing cells in tra-
Nanosolar’s cells are so low that community is not ditional models get bigger the
On a roll even if you subtracted the costs fazed by the small larger the area involved, and
Decades of development have made CIGS of materials, manpower and low-efficiency cells require
cells as efficient as mass-market silicon cells; energy from a traditional sili-
size of the solar larger areas. Another is that
they can convert about 15% of incoming solar con factory, its cells would still market today — it’s even if you gave away 15%-
radiation into outgoing electrical current. be more expensive than those energized by the efficient cells for free, systems
They are also durable — the National Renew- of Nanosolar. using modules such as today’s
able Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, Whether Nanosolar can live
possibilities of would still be too expensive
has been running some since 1988 without any up to that boast remains to be tomorrow.” for many applications. This is
significant degradation. But they are not yet seen. The fact that it has just why Nanosolar and almost all
cheap to produce. raised a further $75 million in private capi- the other recent solar start-ups take a strong
The leaders of Nanosolar think that Eber- tal suggests that some fairly serious investors interest in new ways of mounting their cells —
spacher’s techniques offer a way around that. believe it will. Whether or not it succeeds, ways that take advantage of their light weight
They make tiny CIGS particles and mix them many other companies are trying the same or flexibility. Eberspacher hopes, for example,
into a sort of ink, printing them on to a sub- thing. Miasolé in Santa Clara is starting to that such light-weight systems could be used
strate of metal foil and curing that foil in such produce CIGS films made with its hard-drive on Nanosolar’s own roof, which is too flimsy to
a way that the particles condense into a contin- technology. Earlier this year, Applied Materials take the load from a traditional array.
uous semiconductor. The cells should hit the — a far larger Santa Clara company that sells The ultimate aim, says Stanbery, is to inte-
market in 2007, and the fact that the particles the machinery used to make chips and flat- grate the cells straight into building materials
©2006 Nature Publishing Group

of all sorts. New houses, he points out, need time, it is still a costly subsidy, and some won- as biofuels; the idea is currently under review
roofs anyway. Photovoltaic tiles could be wired der how long it can last in its present form. In at the Department of Energy.
into the house from the start. “Integrating the its favour is popularity with the electorate — Also testimony to the research interest in
photovoltaics as a coating,” he says, “is frankly and, of course, with Germany’s producers of this area is the way that it is being presented
the only practical and cost-effective way to solar cells. at meetings. Organizing a session on solar
do it.” Heliovolt’s printing process is meant Reaching grid parity is not in itself enough. applications at last November’s meeting of
to help make that integration possible. And But if a mixture of much cheaper cells and the Materials Research Society, McGehee found
Konarka talks of adding its dye-based ‘Power adaptable, easily installed modules could bring himself swamped with hundreds of abstracts; it
Plastic’ to more or less anything, from windows the total cost of installation was the third most popular of
(where it would just cream off a bit of the light) down by a factor of three, solar “Integrating the the meeting’s 40 sessions.
to wind sheeters. energy would start to look pru- One potential source of
None of these technologies, however clev- dent, analysts say. photovoltaics is funding for all this research is
erly mounted, will get the costs of generating frankly the only Proposition 87, which will be
electricity low enough for solar power to com- Spending to save practical and cost- on the California ballot this
pete directly with coal, gas, wind or nuclear. There is a lively research agenda November. The proposition,
But because solar panels are inherently easily in basic materials science that effective way to do it.” which is strongly opposed by
decentralized, they do not have to compete a thriving solar industry could — B. J. Stanbery oil producers, would increase
with the cost of generating electricity; they just use to drive costs down further the cost of drilling fees in order
have to compete with the price consumers pay still. Michael McGehee of Stanford University, to raise $4 billion for clean-energy initiatives,
for it. This is four or five times more than the the young investigator whose work on organic including research. Vinod Khosla, a former
cost of generation, because the power compa- photovoltaics was part of the original inspira- partner at Kleiner Perkins, is a main backer of
nies need to pay for transmission networks, tion for Nanosolar, is developing a proposal the initiative, and other venture capitalists are
build new plants and please shareholders. for a major initiative in solar energy research. also on board.
So the industry’s aim is to get significantly “We are going to apply for a large centre here, But the fact that Silicon Valley is abuzz with
below ‘grid parity’. This is the point at which funded by the Department of Energy,” he says. solar enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily mean
the cost of borrowing the money to buy and “We have a team of people who will work on that all the activity there will trigger a revolu-
install a solar-power system is more than using sunlight to excite a semiconductor, or to tion. Someone elsewhere might come up with
covered by savings on your electricity bill. At split water to make hydrogen.” If fully funded, the key breakthrough technology. And just
the moment, grid parity is not quite within it would have 16–20 principal investigators and because venture capitalists are successful in
reach; in most places with a lot of solar cells be one of the biggest research groups with a making money doesn’t mean they will effect
there is or has been a great deal of govern- specific target at Stanford. major economic changes. As Stephen Levy
ment subsidy. In Germany, a particularly Steve Chu, the Nobel prizewinning Stanford of the Center for the Continuing Study of the
powerful subsidy is a government require- physicist who now runs the Lawrence Berkeley California Economy points out, venture capi-
ment that electric utilities be willing to buy National Laboratory on the other side of San talists have been saying that biotech would be

electricity generated by small photovoltaic Francisco Bay, has ambitious plans for an ini- the big new growth sector for years, “and it is
installations, such as those in homes and tiative called Helios. This would integrate new still ‘just about to explode’, with an emphasis
small businesses, at more than 50 cents a kilo- photovoltaic research with studies into other on the ‘just about’.”
watt-hour. Although this rate decreases over ways of capturing and storing sunlight, such Solar enthusiasts can respond that solar
cells have no Food and Drug Administration
to face, and that they don’t need to invest hun-
dreds of millions to get a product to market,
as drug developers do. Yet a decade’s growth,
however buoyant, doesn’t by itself mean that
much. That growth needs to last for several
decades to change an economy, and needs to
accelerate to an even higher level to change
the world.
The difference between growing at a more
than respectable 25% a year and at 44% a year
— the rate at which volume grew in 2005 — is
the difference between doubling in size in just
over three years and in just over two. That
may not sound a great deal, but over 15 years
it means something growing at 44% would
outdo something growing at 25% by a factor of
eight. Between now and 2050, the difference is
a factor of 500. And that could be the difference
between providing just 2% of Earth’s energy
needs — and 10 times those needs.
The remarkable thing is that the products of
the semiconductor industry have grown at a yet
faster rate for a similar length of time. If Silicon
Valley can apply Moore’s law to the capture of
sunshine, it could change the world again. ■
Oliver Morton is Nature’s chief news and
features editor.
High flyers: the bright sparks of Silicon Valley can see a future in solar cells. See Editorial, page 1.

©2006 Nature Publishing Group