With transparent HP tech, pretty solar buildings?

Xtreme Energetics licenses flat-panel technology from Hewlett-Packard to make a solar concentrator that an energy-conscious artistic architect can work with.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read

Hewlett-Packard is licensing flat-panel display technology to a start-up that could lead to dramatically more productive--and aesthetically pleasing--solar panels.

The deal, announced Wednesday, allows Livermore, Calif.-based Xtreme Energetics to use HP-developed transparent transistors to bend light in concentrating photovoltaic, or CPV, solar arrays. CPV systems squeeze more electricity from panels by maximizing the light that hits solar cells.

Click on the image to see a photo gallery of utilty-scale concentrating solar power technologies. SolFocus

The company is in the process of raising an "imminent" $5 million series A round of venture funding, and it anticipates a series B $35 million round, CEO Colin Williams said.

It intends to have a first-generation solar array aimed at utilities available in 12 months, he said. A product for corporate rooftops is also in the works.

The transistor materials--made of environmentally benign zinc and tin--and related manufacturing techniques could still be used for very large flat displays, said Dan Croft, director of intellectual-property licensing at HP.

Xtreme Energetics will use the technology to create an electronic "tracker" that directs sunlight to hit solar cells straight-on to maximize exposure.

Typically, these trackers are mechanical devices such as ground-mounting systems that position cells to follow the light during the course of the day.

Xtreme says HP's electronics can do the same task of pointing light. But because it's not a motor-driven steel mount, the company will be able reduce the costs of CPV, Williams said.

"The fact that we are using an electronic mechanism to do tracking means the cost scaling in volume manufacturing will go much more like the cost scaling in the electronics industry, rather than (the) mechanical-manufacturing industry," he said.

The full design calls for a multilayered solar panel with the transparent electronic tracker, a plastic "internal reflection" concentrator, and a high-efficiency solar cell.

Because the tracker and concentrator are transparent, an artistic pattern could be put onto the panel, making it possible to use it on a building facade, Williams said.

Niche buster?
The HP-licensing deal is another sign of the active crossover of technologies and of people between clean tech and information technology. IBM, which has a Big Green Innovations initiative, is adapting chip fabrication techniques to solar power, including concentrators.

Click on the image to see a photo gallery of concentrating photovoltaic arrays. Amonix

Xtreme Energetics has yet to build a product or prototype. Yet its electronic-tracker design could give the budding CPV marketplace a boost.

At a seminar put on by Greentech Media last week, solar expert and Prometheus Institute President Travis Bradford forecast that concentrating solar power--both concentrating solar thermal and CPV--will account for tens of gigawatts of electricity in the next decade, primarily in utility-scale solar-power plants .

CPV, specifically, remains relatively expensive and, unlike solar-thermal technology, cannot store electricity, Bradford noted. Also, concentrating solar technology works in areas of the globe with the best irradiance, or solar radiation, including the southwest United States, southern Spain, and North Africa.

As a result, he said the extent of the role solar-concentrating power will play in the future is uncertain.

"I firmly believe (CPV) is a market that will be very large, but it doesn't have the ability to work in every market," Bradford said.

Xtreme Energetics' Williams said the electronic tracker tackles one of the biggest concerns with concentrating photovoltaics: the high costs associated with lenses and mounting equipment.

"So long as concentrating PV uses mechanical trackers, it's going to be niche," he said.