Emerging industry players are in agreement with analysts that the solar industry is moving ever closer towards reaching grid parity.
Simon Bransfield-Garth, the recently appointed head of printed plastic solar cell developer and Cambridge University spin-out Eight19 and founder of Myriad Solutions, said despite this trend the role of government will continue to be critical to the industry’s success as it evolves in the coming years.
He told NewNet, ‘It is clear there will come a point when solar can stand on its own two feet, it will probably occur in southern Europe first. There is definitely a role for the government to accelerate that process so people can benefit from the renewable energy technology.’
While leaders around the world have made strides in adopting cap-and-trade systems, European governments in particular have recently come under fire for their dithering approach on solar subsidies. Italy and Spain cut their subsidies this year and the UK has proposed to lower its payments for medium and large-scale solar projects.
Bransfield-Garth’s comments highlight the importance regulation plays in fostering new technology, particularly innovation that is crucial for reducing dependence on costly oil and other limited fossil fuels whose lifetime will soon be spent.
‘Renewable energy is becoming increasingly popular with spin-outs and other companies because there is a huge problem to face,’ said Bransfield-Garth.
Eight19’s business model is distinct from many UK solar companies in that it does not rely on subsidies. The start-up will operate in line with competitive market mechanisms, believing its product fills a compelling and urgent niche.
Its technology was born out of a Cambridge University research programme that initially focused on turning light into electricity in the late 1980s, led by Professor Sir Richard Friend who has a seat on the company’s board.
While most traditional photovoltaics (PV) use semiconductors that are both energy and capital hungry, Eight19 has developed a process for printing solar cells using the same principle as newspaper printing. The company secured £4.5m in venture capital backing from The Carbon Trust in September and also counts French chemical Rhodia as an investor.
‘Printing in a continuous reel entails lower manufacturing costs,’ explained Bransfield-Garth.
The company is unusually – but not uniquely – targeting emerging market applications, where natural resources are abundant and the cost of energy is disproportionately high. Existing power technology in countries such as Africa and India is simply unable to meet growing peak demand, and power costs around five times more than the equivalent cost in the UK.
Eight19 expects its first printed solar products to be available next year, when analysts expect the solar industry will have gained grid parity. Analysts World Street Fundamentals projected earlier this year that the solar market will reach grid parity as early as 2012, as solar manufacturers reduce their costs in line with other available power sources. Head of environmental technology at private equity investor Hermes GPE, Magnus Goodlad, reiterated that grid parity is approaching in several geographies, particularly in the wind market.
‘As there is lots of sun, and printed PV is cost effective, it offers a viable option for emerging markets,’ said Bransfield-Garth.
The company is targeting the provision of specific solar technology for different devices such as phone chargers and lights, planning to sell printed solar films to OEM manufacturers to incorporate into chargers made for these devices.
‘Five hundred million people are estimated to use mobile phones in emerging markets with no access to electricity,’ highlights Bransfield-Garth.
He said, ‘One application we are looking at is solar powered mobile phone chargers. Half the cost of the device is located in the solar cell and we can make this cheaper. Plastic solar is appropriate for emerging markets and can be recycled using a shredder. We use special plastics in layers of electrodes built up in staggers in addition to nano particle plastics.’
After securing Series A financing the company is aiming to expand its manufacturing processes this year, which are to be based in Cambridge to maintain close ties with the university. The company may also look into developing other solar technology applications in the future, once it has made its initial market entry.
Bransfield-Garth said, ‘Solar is a competitive market and we will look at [printed PV for use in windows] in due course.’
Clean energy start-ups are frequently originating from UK universities and a recent report by analysis group Young Company Finance showed that Cambridge University is among several universities such as Oxford, Edinburgh and Imperial College that are fertile grounds for entrepreneurs in science and technology.
Bransfield-Garth said, ‘More and more [clean technology] is coming out of research labs. The challenge is the long stretch between when technology is developed and when it reaches the market.
‘It can take many years from when research is done in the lab to when it is commercialised.’
The company has formed strong ties with some of the world’s largest chemical companies and electronics manufacturers that are likely to galvanise its roll-out, although no partnerships are public yet.
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