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Start-up piggybacks on flat panel TVs for solar sell

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Thanks to Al Gore's blow hard proficiency and government subsidies purchasing the raw materials needed to harness solar power proves more expensive than buying black market kidneys. So, a Silicon Valley start-up has stepped in hoping to reduce the cost of solar energy by tapping the manufacturing know-how behind flat panel TVs.

Signet Solar de-stealthed this week, pitching thin film solar technology. The thin films process, for the uninitiated, has its pros and cons when compared to mainstream crystalline silicon technology. On the plus side, thin film gear costs much less than today's solar modules. On the downside, it's less efficient.

Rajeeva Lahri, CEO at Signet Solar, argues that the efficiency issues won't matter for the market his company has targeted. Come 2008, Signet plans to sell a pair of thin film modules to customers looking to build large solar farms on cheap land. Such farms have little space constraints, making the cheaper solar technology an attractive option, since you're not trying pack a lot of juice on prime real estate such as a city rooftop.

This play could prove lucrative since the crystalline silicon solar crowd faces a crisis of sorts. Business is too good.

The cost of the polysilicon material needed to make their products has doubled in price since 2004. This has forced companies such as Evergreen Solar and SunTech Power to form deals with the polysilicon makers, hoping to secure a more static price for the material. Even with such arrangements in place, the companies can expect to pay more and more for polysilicon thanks to increasing demand for solar products.

Signet Solar looks to route around this pricing problem via a partnership with Applied Materials, which will tap machines normally used to build flat panel TVs to create thin film silicon solar PV (photovoltaic) modules.

"Many competitors use custom built equipment to make their products," Lahri said. "We realize the importance of leveraging a mainstream equipment base."

Signet's interest in the flat panel technology serves as great news for Applied Materials, which has pegged the production of solar devices as its key path to growth and a way to offset a slowing semiconductor-based business.

With Applied Materials on its side, Signet thinks it can reduce the cost of solar modules to between $3 and $4 per watt next year and then eventually down to between $1 and $2 per watt. That price would include some of the costs associated with installing the systems and excludes subsidies. Current solar energy companies sell their modules at around $4 per watt and see costs rise to close to $10 per watt with installation, according to Lahri.

Signet claims another edge over the competition in that it plans to produce some of the largest solar modules on the market at 1.3m x 2.2m. That compares with products about 1m x 0.6m.

"With the larger modules, there's less wiring, less framing, less handling and less overall infrastructure," Lahri said. "So, customers prefer the larger modules because it reduces their cost of installing them."

Signet's story, however, is very much one of forecasts. As mentioned, the company does not plan to ship its modules until the middle of next year. In addition, all of its cost predictions revolve around, well, predictions. Signet will need the manufacturing and demand to come in as expected to meet its rather ambitious price goals.

At the moment, Signet has just a five-person team working on the technology in Palo Alto. There's a bit more on the company here. ®

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