Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Thin-film Solar Cells to Clobber Fossil Fuels Within Ten Years

Naveen,Shimla, INDIA Feb 21 2007, 5:03 am GMT

Now, cheap solar power is poised to chip away at the gas and oil by half. I need not mention that electric efficacy is looking at the solar revolution in apprehension. Every nation seems to be very conscious about generating electricity from the solar power.

Anil Sethi, the chief executive of Swiss company Flisom that develops thin-film solar cells said anticipates that the day is not far when all the cities in America and Europe will be fulfilling their heating, lighting and air-conditioning needs from solar films. He further expects that within five years from now, solar power will be cheap enough to race with carbon-generated electricity and within the next 10 years, solar power will undercut coal, natural gas, and nuclear by 50 percent. The process is technically dubbed clobbering.

The thin film solar technology is based on copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) that is assembled on a lithe backing making it fit to be used by the sides of a building, cell phones, laptops, vehicles, and clothing. The company expects the thin-film solar panels to be available in late 2009 reaching up to $0.80 per watt in five years, and then $.50 per watt within ten years.

A Cloudy Offer From A Chinese Solar Entrepreneur

To get rich is glorious in China nowadays. Scientists are no exception.

A top home-grown inventor, 41-year-old Ma Xin, is currently engineering a reverse takeover of a small Singapore-listed investment company, Rowsley, in a deal worth 2.7 billion Singapore dollars ($1.6 billion) that would bring a small part of his high-tech corporate empire, Sinocome Group, to the international capital markets.

Ma is conducting the takeover through an obscure solar panel production company called Perfect Field that he founded last year.

Ma says the company will be a disruptive player in the energy field, with technology that is competitive with coal power — without any government subsidies.

However, the offer has caused unease among some Singaporean investors. Perfect Field has not yet sold any solar panels — it hasn't even finished building a factory. It's booked a mere 28 million yuan in revenue ($3.6 million) for consultancy work.

Yet Ma is guaranteeing Rowsley investors $300 million a year in profits for the three fiscal years through June 30, 2010. If he does not deliver, he has agreed to forfeit the 92% stake in Rowsley he would receive under the deal.

Ma became well-known in China when he was appointed chief public security adviser to the 2008 Beijing Olympics Games, a role that he secured mainly on the strength of developing China's first computerized facial recognition security system. His company claims the technology is about two years ahead of comparable devices in the U.S. and Europe. His system will be used in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Sinocome's success in commercializing its facial recognition technology in a range of applications has made Xin wealthy. The company claimed sales of 5 billion yuan ($646 million) in 2006 of facial recognition products.

Founded in 1996, Beijing-based Sinocome does not seem to be in need of financing, as most of its interests in more than 30 affiliated companies receive financial support from Chinese governments at different levels through joint ventures.

However, Sinocome says that Perfect Field is one of very few of its subsidiaries that is fully owned and does not receive backing from the government, which is why it is seeking to tap the international equity markets through a reverse takeover.

Under the deal, Rowsley would buy Perfect Field for $1.6 billion and issue Ma shares that would give him a 92% stake in the Singaporean company.

Ma plans for Perfect Field to churn out photovoltaic solar cells based on amorphous silicon technology, a second-generation technique that requires only a thin film of silicon on a glass substrate, making it substantially cheaper to produce than the prevalent, thicker crystalline silicon technology.

Most Chinese solar panel companies, including industry leader Suntech Power, make crystalline silicon solar cells.

The rap on amorphous silicon has been that it is less efficient at collecting solar energy, requiring a larger surface area than crystalline panels. However, Ma claims that Perfect Field has raised the efficiency of its panels to near that of crystalline silicon.

Perfect Field plans to achieve a production capacity of 100 megawatts in 2007 and 500 MW by 2009.

While the venture appears speculative, Rowsley's current investments, which include interests in a paper recycler and a ceramic tile maker, are pedestrian compared to the potential of the red-hot alternative energy sector.

Described by an employee as reticent and polite, Ma honed his teeth at China's two most influential scientific institutions, obtaining his PhD from the Chinese Academy of Science and doing post-doctoral work at Beijing Tsinghua University, the alma mater of most of its current leaders, including current President Hu Jintao.

He continues to play an instrumental role in research and development and is said to leave the business side largely to professional managers.

He is active politically, serving as a consultant for the mayor of Beijing and a member of the Science and Technology Committee of the Military Command Association of the People's Liberation Army, as well as the Standards Committee of the Ministry of Public Security.
Sinocome says on its Web site that it has total production assets worth 4 billion yuan ($517 million) and its trademark value estimated at 1 billion yuan ($129 million), but a company manager said these figures were posted before Morgan Stanley appraised its fast-growing solar energy production center in Jilin last year to be worth close to $4.8 billion.

Perfect Field is just the latest solar energy venture for Sinocome, which started in 2000 with the production of solar-powered street lamps and has recently won Chinese foreign aid contracts in such African countries as Kenya and Uganda.

Its solar energy products have also found markets in Peru, Costa Rica, Mexico and Venezuela.
Groupwide, Sinocome says it intends to expand its production capacity for solar panels to nearly 2000 megawatts in the next three years, which would transform it into an industry leader.
To help with its international expansion, Ma has retained American marketing guru Philip Kotler as a consultant.

Sinocome says that its solar panels will be incorporated in the Beijing Olympic stadium, dubbed the "Nest."

Chinese scientist finds wealth in solar

Chinadaily, Shanghai - Physicist Shi Zhengrong spent the 1990s in an Australian lab studying solar power, a field he picked by chance. He expected to devote his life to science.

Still, Shi saw signs of a blossoming industry as Germany, Japan and other countries invested in cleaner power. Excited by a trip home that showed him China's rapid development, he startled friends by abruptly moving his wife and two Australian-born sons to his homeland in 2001 to launch a solar equipment company.

Four years later, Shi's confidence paid off when his Suntech Power Holdings Ltd. went public on the New York Stock Exchange and investors snapped up shares, turning him into a billionaire. Last year, Shi ranked No. 7 on the Forbes magazine list of China's richest tycoons, with a US$1.4 billion fortune.

Today, he has traded his research smock for blue business suits, a CEO's 63rd-floor corner office and a role advising the Chinese government on renewable energy policy.

"We believed the share price would go up, but not so quickly," said Shi, a 43-year-old with a boyish face, chuckling at what he says was a rise marked by lucky breaks and timing. "I never thought I would be a rich guy."

Shi is the leader of an emerging group of Chinese entrepreneurs who are striking it rich by meeting fast-growing demand in China and abroad for cleaner power.

They are getting a boost from China's efforts to curb environmental damage after two decades of fast economic growth that have left it with badly polluted air and water. Chinese leaders also are promoting renewable energy in hopes of reducing mounting dependence on imported oil.

"The technological prowess of China is growing a lot faster than people in the West reckon," said Andrew Wilkinson, co-manager of a fund at investment bank CLSA Emerging Markets that invests in Asian clean-energy industries.

Suntech's 3,500-strong work force at four sites in China produces photovoltaic cells, the delicate, hand-size black silicon panels that can transform sunlight into electricity.

At a time when Chinese leaders are trying to turn state enterprises into nimble global competitors, Suntech already goes head-to-head with Japanese and European rivals in foreign markets. Shi says all its technology comes from its own labs.

By last year, Suntech had risen to be the world's fourth-largest solar cell maker, according to an annual ranking by Photon International, an industry magazine. Japan's Sharp Corp. is the market leader and other competitors include Q-Cells AG of Germany, Kyocera Corp. of Japan and BP Solar, owned by British oil company BP PLC.

Worldwide, experts expect the industry's sales to grow by 20 percent to 40 percent annually in coming years.

Suntech's key markets are Germany, Japan and Spain, which subsidize renewable energy by requiring utilities to buy solar-generated power and to pay more for it than they would for electricity from oil or gas.

China accounted for just 10 percent of Suntech's 2006 sales of US$599 million. The equipment is expensive enough that its use in the company's home market is limited to lighthouses, remote military posts and other sites far from power plants.

But Shi says the Chinese, US and other markets will grow quickly as governments respond to concern about global warming by rolling out clean-energy initiatives. Beijing has ordered Chinese utilities to generate at least 10 percent of their power from solar, wind, hydroelectric and other renewable sources by 2010, with the target rising after that.

Despite his science background, Shi talks like a tough-minded businessman, and people in the industry say he is an able entrepreneur who moves between East and West and the worlds of technology and finance. He shifts easily between English and Chinese, and broke off twice during a 30-minute interview to take rapid-fire calls on his cell phone, first in the Shanghainese dialect, then in Mandarin.

"He comes across as a strong CEO who has a strong vision for his company and the future of his industry," said David Edwards, an industry analyst for ThinkEquity Partners in San Francisco.
Shi is part of a generation who left China by the tens of thousands in the 1980s to study or work. They're now trickling back, lured by its booming economy's new opportunities.

He is part of a growing group of returnees who are benefiting from government support for technology and new protections for private business. A few, like Shi, have become super wealthy by selling shares in their ventures on foreign stock exchanges.

Shi works 10- to 12-hour days and spends eight months a year on the road in Europe, the United States or China. But he said he wants to devote more time to charity work, including an environmental education program that he launched with his wife.

Shi said he has little time to enjoy his wealth.

"I'm a scientist," Shi said. "My hobby is solving technical problems."

Shi arrived in Australia in 1988 to spend a year at the University of New South Wales after getting his Ph.D. in physics in China.

Shi's fellowship ended, he hunted for a new post in Australia. A friend sent him to see Martin Green, a New South Wales professor and solar pioneer. With no background in the field, Shi talked his way into a job.

"I really got into solar power by chance," he said.

Shi took a job at a company formed to commercialize advances made by New South Wales researchers. He and his Chinese-born wife bought a house in Sydney. He became an Australian citizen in 1993, with no plans to return to China.

"I never thought this solar business could take off or become commercially viable," he said. "I thought I just needed to concentrate on my research and publish papers to do my job as a scientist."

But in the mid-1990s, Shi started visiting China regularly to lecture on solar power. Friends lobbied him to return to China.

At the same time, Shi was getting restless in Australia and wanted a new challenge. He made a snap decision after a two-week visit to China left him "really excited" about its potential.
"My life was too easy over there," he said. "I thought if I came back I could do something really good."

The government of Wuxi, a city on Shanghai's western outskirts with ambitions as a high-tech center, put up US$6 million to finance Suntech, which started with 20 employees, and helped to land US$5 million in research grants.

"A lot of scholars aren't successful (in business) because they don't have a sense of marketing and sales," Shi said. "From the beginning, we had a very strong sense, whatever we do we have to make money as soon as possible, because there is no money for us to burn."

Suntech's main 120,000-square-foot factory is still in Wuxi, though Shi bought out his state backers before the IPO with the help of private investors led by Goldman Sachs.

At the Wuxi factory, technicians in green Suntech uniforms, surgical masks and hair nets turn 4-inch silicon discs into solar cells.

The cells are coated with power-producing films and sandwiched between sheets of glass in groups of 72 to form solar panels, each capable of generating 175 watts of power. That is too little to power three typical 60-watt light bulbs, but Suntech notes that it will light many more energy-saving bulbs.

Production is growing so fast that just two years after the factory opened in a special high-tech zone, Suntech is building a new one the same size a block away.

Shi said Suntech's goal is to develop superior technology, not just rely on China's low labor costs. But he said lower prices for skills and equipment will give the company an edge by making its US$20 million annual research budget go further. A technical college graduate can be hired for 2,000 yuan (US$250) a month.

Shi said that as technology improves, Suntech hopes to be able to cut prices within five years from the current US$3.50 per solar panel to US$2.50 -- a level that he said would compete with traditional power in California, a big potential market.

Other Chinese companies are springing up to supply solar equipment, wind turbines and pollution-control technology. A Chinese law that took effect Jan. 1 -- Shi helped to draft it -- requires local authorities to favor renewable energy. The government has ordered power plants and factories to start complying with long-ignored emissions standards.

Those initiatives will create opportunities in industries ranging from wind turbines and nuclear power plants to pollution control and raising crops needed to produce ethanol and other clean-burning fuels, said Jing Ulrich, chairwoman of China equities for JP Morgan.

"It's so huge," Ulrich said, "no one can estimate the scale."