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Solar Power: GE buys in, thin film cells, solar map

Concentrator maker Soliant Energy raises $21 million, Sharp Solar and Signet Solar boost thin-film production, and a detailed solar resource map.

SAN DIEGO--The Solar Power International conference kicked off in a buoyant mood.

Despite concerns about the economy overall, the primary subsidy for the solar industry--a renewable energy federal tax credit--was extended for eight years, which solar industry experts say ensure the continued pace of fast growth.

Announcements from solar vendors at the conference reflect that optimism and the growing diversity of solar technologies.

• General Electric said Tuesday that it is investing $2.5 million in Soliant Energy, part of a $21 million investment in the company which makes solar systems for corporate rooftops.

Soliant Energy's solar concentrators designed for corporate rooftops. Soliant Energy

Soliant Energy's devices concentrate sunlight with several Fresnel lenses onto high-performance solar cells to maximize electricity output. Each lens, which magnifies the light 500 times, is mounted on a tracker so that it follows the sun over the course of the day.

Unlike many specialized concentrating photovoltaic systems, Soliant Energy makes devices that are the same size as traditional solar panels, which makes them suitable for rooftops and relatively easy to install, according to the company.

GE estimates that commercial and industrial buildings comprise 60 percent of building roof area in the U.S. Soliant Energy estimates that corporate rooftops will represent $13.2 billion in revenue by 2010.

Earlier investors RockPort Capital Partners, Nth Power, Trinity Ventures, and Rincon Venture Partners also participated in the funding.

• 3Tier on Monday published a map of the solar resource in the Western hemisphere based on satellite day, which it says is more detailed than existing maps.

3Tier's solar map gives detailed information on solar resources. 3Tier

With the map, financiers, developers, and policy makers can rapidly get an idea of the availability of sun, particularly in South and Central America, according to 3Tier. The company released a global wind resource map earlier this year.

• Sharp Solar said that it will have thin-film solar cells available to utility customers next year. The move is significant because it further validates the viability of thin-film solar cells for large-scale solar projects.

Sharp is one of the largest suppliers of polysilicon cells and modules--the incumbent technology. Thin-film cells, made from alternate materials, are less efficient in converting light to electricity but are cheaper because less material is used.

The company said that it will modify its liquid-crystal display manufacturing lines to ramp up production of thin-film cells, starting in March 2010 with a factory capable of producing 480 megawatts a year.

• In another sign of thin-film cells' growing influence, Menlo Park, Calif.-based Signet Solar said that it has begun volume manufacturing of its thin-film cell panels in Mochau, Germany after receiving the proper certification.

Having completed its pilot production, it expects to produce at a rate of 20 megawatts a year and ramp up to 130 megawatts by the end of next year. The modules and films are expected to be sold to utilities for solar power plants, large commercial installations, and building-integrated photovoltaics.