FREMONT, California — Solar cells have been converting sunlight into electricity for years, but scientists have been much less successful at turning that technology into money.
Now, in a staid Bay Area office park, a converted hard-drive factory with a shiny new façade has begun churning out unconventional solar tubes that could change the economics of solar power.
The highly-automated factory belongs to Solyndra, a three-year-old company that has received $600 million in venture capital and $1.2 billion in orders for its new modules, which look like curtain rods. Those big investors are betting the company’s unique product will soon blanket commercial buildings across the world.
Instead of the standard panels mounted on racks that have dominated solar for the last 20 years, Solyndra’s cylindrical solar modules collect sunlight more efficiently across a broader range of angles and catch light reflected off the roof itself. The solar cells also contain no silicon, which has been a costly component of most solar systems.
Targeted at a highly specific market — office and big-box rooftops — and with signed contracts in hand, the company, along with a small cadre of other well-funded solar startups, are racing to turn their scientific and engineering marvels into profitable businesses.
The scramble, the money, and the size of the prize — a big slice of the trillions of dollars made in energy — remind the company’s founder, Chris Gronet, of his earlier experience in the industry that became the basis for the information revolution.
“We think the solar industry or market look very similar to the way semiconductor manufacturing was 20 years ago,” Gronet, Solyndra’s CEO, told Wired.com. “We say, ‘Wow this is familiar. We’ve been through this before.'”