They decided to buy Silevo -- one of the two companies at the heart of the state's
They did it because they were drawn to the company's technology, which they believe can produce some of the most efficient solar panels on the market today.
And they did it because
"It was really that combination of an advanced technology that was ready to scale that was the key," said
In fact, Silevo executives said they had been talking with state officials in the weeks leading up to the
And now, with
"I think Silevo is a very important part of
"Silevo's technology is certainly very interesting and has promise," he said. "It has the potential to be a very valuable technology. I would not go so far as to say it is a game-changer as yet."
Analysts note that Silevo still is a relatively young company, built around a new technology that, while promising, has yet to be proven in high-volume production. And like many early-stage companies, Silevo still is losing money -- although as a private company, executives won't say how much -- relying on money it has raised from venture capital firms to fund its operations so far. The 200-employee company has annual sales between
They caution that the solar panel business is highly competitive, pitting Silevo against lower-cost Chinese producers whose panels are less efficient, and other, deep-pocketed companies, like Solar Frontier, which is backed by oil giant
"There will always be a lower-cost supplier," said
But Silevo isn't out to be the cheapest. Instead, the company is staking its future on technology that it says is more efficient than most other solar modules on the market. Silevo's panels combine elements from both of the main technologies used in today's marketplace with production techniques used to make semiconductors in a way that company executives say makes their panels among the most efficient on the market.
"They're pursuing the high-efficiency technology. They've been pretty well ahead of the curve," Feinstein said. "Their product is legit. I think the way they're doing things is intelligent."
The old system provided about 20 percent of the power Bergman consumed at his home. The new system should produce about 60 percent of his needs.
"Basically, for the same panels on my roof, I'm generating almost three times the power," said Bergman, who bought the Silevo system with about
Even then, solar power is a long-term investment for Bergman. The upgrade is expected to take about eight years to pay for itself through reduced electricity bills and the modest credits Bergman will receive from
"Anything it produces first goes to the house, then it goes back to the grid," Harzewski said.
Lower-cost solar panels can convert about 18 to 19 percent of the sun's energy into electricity. Silevo's modules from its 160-employee Chinese factory have achieved efficiency rates of 21 percent. In research settings, Silevo's technology has converted as much as 23 percent of the sun's energy into electricity, said
Efficiency is important because as solar modules are able to convert more of the sun's energy into electricity, fewer panels are needed to generate the same amount of power as a less-efficient array. Fewer panels also mean less hardware, wiring and lower mounting costs.
"We can install more power on that same rooftop," Beitel said. And the higher efficiency helps offset the higher cost of Silevo's panels.
"The more efficient your panel, your other installation costs come down," Mehta said. "It's a huge lever to bring down your nonpanel costs."
Solar panels also become less efficient as the temperature rises, but Silevo said the performance of its panels declines at a slower pace than conventional technology. While conventional panels might be 20 percent less efficient on a hot summer day, Silevo's efficiency drops by about 10 percent in similar conditions, Beitel said.
Silevo also is developing "bifacial" panels whose undersides will have the ability to absorb sunlight that is reflected off the surface below the modules. That technology works best in installations that are mounted on the ground, such as the solar panel array at the
"We think it's something that's really going to drive the next wave in terms of cost and performance," Beitel said.
That's important in less sunny places, such as the Buffalo Niagara region. "To really make solar mainstream and make it a global-type option for energy generation, we need to improve the low-light response," Beitel said. "We need to be able to get enough energy out in
"If you can get a technology that can generate more electricity during those low-light days, you're going to reduce the overall cost of electricity," he said. "This is one of our key areas of focus for the next wave, making these panels optimized for all types of weather."
Cutting production cost
Solar panel prices have dropped significantly over the last few years, but they still aren't low enough to make solar power systems economical without government incentives aimed at increasing the use of renewable power sources.
And they said Silevo's panels, which use copper as a key component instead of more expensive silver used in most other solar modules, give the company a further cost advantage. In conventional panels, the cost of silver is second only to the cost of the silicon that forms the basis of each panel.
By producing its panels in
"Our costs will be low enough," Rive said. "We're basically on the cusp here of unsubsidized solar being cheaper than fossil fuel generation."
Industry on an upswing
The solar industry already is on a major growth spurt. The electricity-generating capacity of new solar projects installed last year jumped by 41 percent last year as installation costs tumbled by 15 percent, according to a report by
Still, the solar industry is littered with companies that went bust, including high-profile failures such as Solyndra, a startup that touched off a political storm when it filed for bankruptcy and defaulted on a
"The solar module business is extremely competitive," said Mehta, the
"We didn't want situations like Solyndra," Kaloyeros said. "They got a lot of money from the federal government, but they wanted to compete with the Chinese with cheap products, and they went out of business."
Mehta also said he has more confidence in Silevo's prospects. He thinks Silevo's management, dominated by executives who previously held high posts at
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