The industry is at a “tipping point” where it is beginning to compete with other conventional sources of energy, believes Charles Gay, corporate vice-president and general manager, solar business group at Applied Materials Inc., the California-based technology solutions firm. Gay, who served between 1994 and 1997, as director of the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the world’s leading laboratory for energy efficiency and renewable energy research , was in Mumbai to participate in a conference on advances in energy research at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and met with Mint.
You spoke about a growing corporate interest in solar technologies. Does it have to do with the emerging market for carbon credits that companies can earn for green energy?
Charles Gay, corporate vice-president and general manager, solar business group, at Applied Materials Inc
A lot of it has actually been government policy—initially, (the) Japanese government policy. That was followed by the German government, which said that if you put a solar panel on your rooftop, you would get a premium for the electricity you put into the grid. In the past decade, solar (energy) has grown exceptionally quickly in Germany. More than half the panels installed today in the world are in Germany.
The popular impression about solar energy is that it is not efficient in terms of electricity generation.
The way to make solar power generation more efficient is to get the cost per watt down. That means using raw materials that allow us to make thin layers...coatings on glass that can absorb light and make electricity. Historically, we have used thick wafers of silicon (for absorbing solar radiation). Recently, we have begun using glass with thin coatings. The real cost reduction has come from using big sheets of glass such as the ones used on glass-fronted skyscrapers with a thin layer of coating.
Does this mean that tall glass-fronted buildings can actually use their glass surfaces to generate electricity?
Yes, technically they can. But less than 10% of installations are on such buildings. It all depends on the architect’s level of awareness and the options available to him.
What is the present cost per watt for solar power?
In Japan, it is around 30 cents per kilowatt. But for the rest for the world, it is close to $6 (Rs236). For us to compete with other grid power, we will have to bring it down to $3 per kW. It is possible with the present thin-film technology.
Applied Materials is a nanotechnology (dealing with matter at the level of atoms) solutions company. Where does solar technology fit into your scheme of things?
The thickness of films that are being used in solar technology is now being measured in nanometers.
For instance, the SunFab film for which we got the Platt’s (a McGraw-Hill company that provides energy information services) Green Innovator award this year is only 10 nanometers thin—it has the thickness of three atoms or (is) 10,000 times thinner than human hair.
A film of this thinness needs to be spread uniformly over glass sheets of more than 6 sq. m for efficient generation. That’s where we come in.
How do you see the solar power industry evolving in coming years?
We are at a place where solar (power) is directly competitive with grid power. It has evolved from (powering) satellites to mountain-top microwave feeders and villages where we are competing with diesel generators for electricity...to where we are competing with grid power in places such as Japan or California in summer when the electricity costs are high.
We are at the tipping point now—in more and more places we are competing directly with other base-load sources of power.
Are venture capital firms rushing to invest in solar power?
It is a trend that has been growing quite rapidly in the last three years. Vinod Khosla’s venture fund for renewable energy (Khosla Partners) is a good reference point.
This growing interest is due to a combination of factors. Technologically, we are ready and the market is also (ready to) adopt such technologies and, naturally, financiers are queuing up to invest in this sector. Besides, government policies have been one of the topmost push factors.
The governments are concerned about job creation, energy security and energy self-reliance.
What prospects does solar power have in India?
There are around 80,000 un-electrified villages in India. Solar power can be used to power these villages; it can be used to pump water. Electricity lost by theft can be saved. If an individual has a solar panel, they (he or she will) protect it and take care of it.
It can be used for everything from rural electrification, water pumping to meeting peak load shortages. People now fire up a diesel generator when there is load shedding. The government could change that by just announcing an accelerated tax depreciation policy for putting up a solar panel for homeowners and commercial operators.
Your company has a research laboratory in India. What does it focus on?
We design next-generation equipment here. We have 45 people working for the solar (power business) and around 1,000 people in applied materials. We plan to expand the basic research IIT Mumbai (does) in advanced metal conductors for solar cells, combining the advantages of wafers with thin films.
We are also designing the factory plans for developing 1,000MW solar power panels in India.
Will factories for these 1000MW solar panels also come up in India?
We certainly hope so.