Solar Panels Are Getting Cheaper, Force Firm Into Tough Spot

SolFocus's concentrating photovoltaic arrays | Photo courtesy SolFocus

The solar industry shakeout continues as rock-bottom solar panel prices have forced a difficult decision at yet another high-tech California solar firm. SolFocus, a San Jose-based manufacturer of concentrating photovoltaic modules, has announced it's looking for a company to buy it after failing to secure new rounds of venture capital investment.

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Concentrating PV (CPV) modules are similar to the standard photovoltaic panels you see on more and more rooftops in California, except that CPV uses an optical system -- lenses or mirrors -- to focus extra sunlight on each square inch of photovoltaic surface. CPV systems can reach efficiency levels well above standard PV. As evidence, consider SolFocus' competitors in the sector, Seal Beach-based Amonix, whose modules have reached about 35% efficiency for their commercially available units, and the Bay Area's Solar Junction, which has reached 44% efficiency in the lab. However, the optics needed to focus the sun's light add significantly to the overall cost of a unit. That's a problem when prices of vanilla PV are falling through the floor: CPV just has trouble competing. Amonix itself is an example: the firm closed its Nevada factory earlier this fall.

That said, long-term prospects for the CPV sector appear to be rosier than they are in the short term. Industry analysts at Lux Research forecast growth in the CPV sector that by 2017 will outstrip conventional PV by about 25%. CPV seems to perform better than flat-panel PV in extreme temperatures, such as those encountered in utility-scale desert power stations. CPV may well prove to be the long-term technology of choice for installations in desert cities.

Nonetheless, prospective income from 2017 or later doesn't pay the bills now, and so SolFocus -- which has deployed 15 megawatts of CPV projects in the last two years, and had just announced a new 450 megawatt project across the Mexican border in Tecate -- a project that may get put on hold as the company restructures itself for acquisition. SolFocus has laid off all but a core staff to maintain existing projects and prepare the company for sale, according to a release by the company. Just another day in the continuing bottoming out of the solar PV market.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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