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Earth Day technology: the spray-on solar panel?

New firms are challenging conventional rooftop solar by using thin-film technology on windows and even indoors. On this Earth Day, conventional Chinese companies are the cost leaders. But US firms have the technical edge.

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The challenge for these young companies is to reduce costs enough to convince architects and builders that their lower-efficiency solutions make sense. Neither New Technologies or Konarka has released information on their costs per kWh. New Technologies says it’s a developmental company still working on its product. Konarka says the cost per kWh depends on the specific application of its product and where it’s mounted.

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Even more challenging for them is that these cost targets keep dropping because Chinese competition is driving down the price of conventional silicon solar panels. The price drop, combined with a reduction in  German government subsidies, is one factor behind the bankruptcies of several major German solar cell companies this month. The US subsidiary of one of the German companies, Solar Trust of America, also filed for bankruptcy. It holds the developmental rights to a huge solar project in California.

US manufacturers have charged that Chinese companies, who now have 48 percent of the world market, are selling solar cells below cost. President Obama has already tacked on some tariffs and more may be coming. In May some of the Chinese manufacturers may face anti-dumping penalties.

Many of the new US companies are trying to protect themselves from the Chinese by registering their processes with the US Patent Office.  For example, New Energy Technologies has filed 10 patents on its spraying process.

However, there are plenty of skeptics about the new technologies.

“What matters is the area on the roof,” says Mike Knotek, director of the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder. ““If you don’t have direct sunlight, you have a problem.” To him, window technologies getting only light for part of the day are at a tremendous disadvantage.

But Mr. McCauley argues that the new technology has some advantages over those big silicon cells. For example, to make a traditional silicon unit requires a lot of energy to heat the raw material up to 1,400 degrees. “It takes two years to get the energy back that went into it,” he says.

And costs are not the only factor. “Look at the LEED standard,” he says, referring to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design criteria for “green” buildings. “It’s not all about energy costs but also sustainability and green materials and local sourcing. On top of that, these different organizations and building owners want to reduce energy consumption and for every reduction, the value of the building goes up.”  

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