Austin Embraces Solar Energy Market

By Kendra Mendez

News 8 Austin
Austin, Texas
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A new solar panel is 100 times thinner and could be significantly cheaper than traditional photovoltaic materials, making it a possible competitor to the silicon-dominated world of solar energy.

Building materials such as steel, glass and roofing may soon have embedded solar cells thanks to a thin-film technology that uses copper indium gallium selenide, or CIGS, instead of silicon.

Several companies, including Nanosolar, Miasole, Global Solar and HelioVolt are developing CIGS systems. Several investors and industry experts say HelioVolt leads the pack.

"What sets HelioVolt apart is that its technology allows them to deposit thin-film materials more quickly, efficiently and at a potentially lower cost than conventional process technologies," said Joel Serface, director of the Clean Energy Incubator in Austin, Texas.

HelioVolt's manufacturing process is between 80 percent and 98 percent faster than other thin-film manufacturing processes, according to Serface. The company's efficient system has recently translated into venture capital, as well as accolades from Time magazine and The Wall Street Journal.

"Our goal is that energy coming from our (technology) would be competitive with energy today in the home -- without subsidies," said Jimmy Treybig, a HelioVolt investor and founder and former CEO of Tandem Computers.

Without government support, alternative-energy scientists have more motivation to become cost-competitive with petroleum, Treybig said.

Manufacturing silicon cells costs roughly $3 a watt, while CIGS technology could lower the price to $1 a watt if HelioVolt and others can streamline the manufacturing process.

"The long-term target to make solar pervasive is $1 per watt," Serface said. "Silicon and thin film are both trying to achieve this."

HelioVolt's goal is to build a manufacturing plant in 2007, with commercial marketing scheduled for 2008.