New technologies taking over

The atmosphere here is less high tech than high school chemistry lab, and Global Solar’s days in this cramped Tucson, Ariz., facility are history. The company is shifting production to a sparkling factory just a few miles down the road. The new facility is fast enough to churn out 40 megawatts’ worth of thin-film solar panels a year, more than 10 times Global Solar’s previous capacity.

It’s a story being repeated throughout the solar world, from the Southwest to Silicon Valley to Germany. Everywhere you look, thin-film solar companies are opening new, more efficient factories. The thin in thin film refers to the skinny layers of photoactive chemicals needed for the technology, as compared with the thicker films used in crystalline-silicon solar modules. Though thin-film photovoltaics are cheaper than the crystalline ones on most rooftop solar panels, the technology has proved maddeningly difficult to mass-produce, which had kept it from going mainstream. But today thin film is the hottest part of the fastest-growing new energy source in the world. BCC Research, which charts technology markets, expects the global solar market to grow from $13 billion to $32 billion by 2012, with thin film expanding 45% a year. Masdar, the clean-energy arm of the government of Abu Dhabi, just announced that it will invest $2 billion in thin film. “Crystalline silicon has had its day,” says Peter Harrop, chairman of the London-based research firm IDTechEx. “These new technologies will be taking over.”