The solar bubble?

Technology research firm Lux Research (New York, NY) forecasts that new solar photovoltaic (PV) installations will expand five-fold between 2008 and 2013, fueling a $100 billion dollar global solar market by 2013 and feeding a frenzy of laser manufacturers eager to jump into such solar-cell processing applications as wafer cutting, patterning, and edge polishing (which are included in laser materials processing revenues).

Technology research firm Lux Research (New York, NY) forecasts that new solar photovoltaic (PV) installations will expand five-fold between 2008 and 2013, fueling a $100 billion dollar global solar market by 2013 and feeding a frenzy of laser manufacturers eager to jump into such solar-cell processing applications as wafer cutting, patterning, and edge polishing (which are included in laser materials processing revenues). Echoing the sentiment of most laser manufacturers vying for a piece of the solar-cell processing pie, Robert J. Phillippy, Newport Spectra-Physics’ president and CEO, said, “During these difficult macroeconomic market conditions, which could continue for some time, we will focus on reducing our operating costs and generating cash, while investing selectively in areas, such as the photovoltaic market, where we see growth opportunities.”

Despite the enthusiasm, some fear that there are too many laser players vying for a piece of that pie, and others fear that the telecom explosion and corresponding implosion (or bubble) of 2001 could possibly be repeated in the solar-cell market. But Paula Mints, principal analyst PV Services Program at Navigant Consulting (Palo Alto, CA), disagrees: “We are currently in a period of over capacity; but, I would not describe this as a bubble. Photovoltaic technologies will play an important part in the energy mix in the very near future, and indeed, are playing an important part today,” she says. “Future significant markets such as China and India are still emerging, and India has put in place incentives to stimulate its market.” Mints’ position is supported by solar-cell manufacturers such as Q-Cells (Bitterfeld-Wolfen, Germany), which has invested a stunning $3.5 billion into a North-American module manufacturing facility in Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico (see www.laserfocusworld.com/articles/345508).

Discussion surrounding the presence of a solar bubble ranges from adamant opposition to complacent agreement. But for laser manufacturers, “The valuable discussion should be centered around how laser and PV companies take advantage of the present opportunity,” said Steve Eglash, former president and CEO of PV startup Cyrium Technologies (Ottawa, ON, Canada), who also recently led a solar-energy strategic planning project with the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). “Right now, there are two opposing trends in the solar industry. On the one hand, the worldwide recession and falling oil prices will no doubt put an end to 40% compound annual growth rates for the solar market for now. On the other hand, the long-term trend is clearly for continued investment to stem pollution, reduce global warming, and eliminate the fossil-fuel-based energy and political dependence that facilitates quagmires like the Iraq War,” says Eglash. “There is no doubt that the rate of energy consumption slows during a recession. Solar company valuations have been dropping and supply and demand are coming into balance; however, laser manufacturers shouldn’t see this as a bubble bursting, but as a time to retrench and position themselves as suppliers of a return-on-investment (ROI)-rich technology.” Eglash advises, “Laser suppliers must prove to solar-panel manufacturers that laser processing increases both manufacturing efficiencies and the PV Watt/dollar ratio for money spent on capital equipment. Only those companies that actively ‘market’ the ROI benefit of laser processing--rather than just any laser they happen to have in their portfolio--will be successful.”

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