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Electrifying emerging nations with thin-film solar

Will shantytown homes have roofs made of solar panels?

A lot of thin-film solar-panel concepts will face hurdles to gaining ground in established markets. The silicon shortage will ease, the cost of making and installing silicon solar panels will decline, and silicon will likely remain more efficient at converting sunlight to electricity than the thin-film alternatives.

But in emerging nations, it could be a completely different story, Alain Harrus, a partner at VC firm Crosslink Capital, said during a meeting this week. Many villages and homes in Africa, Asia and Latin America don't have electricity to begin with, so there's no incumbent technology to dislodge, he noted. And where power exists, electricity theft and blackouts are persistent problems.

Locals, potentially, would quickly find applications for portable, flexible solar panels. That's how cell phones became a common possession in China and India. Flexible panels could be attached to a pump to draw water from a well or attached to a water purification system. UC Berkeley has field-tested a purification system that employs a fluorescent bulb to kill microbes in water. A huge number of the hospital beds in the world are filled with people with water-borne diseases.

"You could roll it up (the flexible solar panel) and carry it under your arm," he said.

Thin-film solar panels could ultimately replace roofs in shantytowns, opening up the opportunity for refrigerators (where they don't exist), TVs and PCs. Those heat-trapping corrugated roofs would disappear. Instead of electricity theft, families would have to worry about roof theft. Still, objects are tougher to steal often than energy.

Thin film has a further advantage: it is easier and cheaper to ship than glass silicon solar panels. Get a high-profile philanthropist to fund a project and solar chargers could start popping up in Mali.

Crosslink is an investor in SoloPower, which wants to make CIGS (copper-indium-gallium-selenide) solar cells. SoloPower will put its cells on flexible substrates. Who knows? This may turn out to be where SoloPower aims a lot of its products.