by Eric Wesoff
The concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) market has been long on promise and short on results. But there have been a few hopeful signs of late.
Kleiner Perkins saw fit to invest $130 million into CPV systems vendor Amonix. And shortly after that fund raise, Cogentrix announced a 30-megawatt project with Amonix. That's easily the largest CPV project in the history of CPV.
SolFocus recently said that it would have 10 megawatts in the ground by the end of the year.
Concentrix Solar, German-based CPV vendor, funded by Good Energies and recently purchased by Soitec, just announced the opening of a U.S. office and a CEC listing.
And today we saw JDS Uniphase (NASDAQ:JDSU), the optical networking, laser and coatings expert, announce that it is entering the CPV market as a chip supplier. The firm has a market capitalization of $2.1 billion.
One of the chicken-and-egg problems that has long plagued CPV is the cost and supply of the triple-junction compound semiconductor solar cell that performs the actual photovoltaic conversion. The low-volume supply chain for these chips has depended on somewhat dysfunctional suppliers Emcore and Spectrolab. Emcore has a history of losing money, questionable management and flirting with entering the CPV system business. Spectrolab makes a quality product, but both of these firms, with a history of supplying the space and satellite market, have found the transition to commercial manufacturing a bit of a cultural stretch.
A few VC-funded startups -- Solar Junction, Cyrium and QuantaSol -- are aiming to provide chips to the system vendors. But the market remains relatively low volume and has not taken off like the flat solar panel market, with its increasingly massive volumes and plunging prices.
We have long claimed that if the CPV market ever did start to take off, larger semiconductor vendors would take notice and follow with their III/V material chip entries. We had suggested that a fitting candidate could be an LED supplier, as a triple-junction solar cell is approximately a reverse LED. But JDSU's entry, with its distinctive optical pedigree in lasers from a long-ago acquisition of SDL, makes a certain amount of sense.
I spoke with Jan Gustav-Werthen, the Director of JDSU's photovoltaic group, about the announcement of its entering the CPV market. It's been a rather poorly kept secret in the CPV world, but at least it's official today. Werthen arrived at JDSU through the acquisition of his company, Photonic Power, which delivered power over fiber optics.
Werthen said, "We aim to be number-one cell supplier in the world. If we didn't think we could be number one, we wouldn't enter the market." Werthen spoke of JDSU's "vast and deep" experience in III/V semiconductors and their internal capacity and strength in epitaxial growth for their lasers.
Werthen continued, "We're not going into this for fun or for the environment; this is a business decision."
Werthen expects that the CPV business "will be taking off in 2011 and 2012 and will be a substantial business by 2020." He foresees 30 percent module efficiency on the horizon, with cell efficiencies increasing at about one percent per year -- cell efficiencies eventually will be in the 50 percent range.
CPV makes sense in particular geographies and circumstances: high sun and low water. Werthen sees a day when "PV goes to where the sun is rather than where the money is" and when that happens -- "then CPV will really take off."
Cost remains the ruling fact of life in the solar market and it remains to be seen if Amonix and SolFocus, with the help of vendors like JDSU or Solar Junction, can keep up with the plunging cost of conventional solar.
It also remains to be seen if JDSU can help enable the CPV market with innovation or cost savings.
Disclosure: No positions