Solar firm could have bright future |

Solar firm could have bright future

Eileen JoyceJohn Tuttle, president and chief executive officer, and Kelly Christopher, director of marketing and business development, stand in front of the machine that will be used to build solar cells.
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A company that moved to Grass Valley last month may brighten prospects for a renewable energy source – solar energy.

DayStar Technologies Inc. hopes to begin mass production of its solar cells by the third quarter of 2003, employing 15 people at its Golden Gate Terrace facilities.

DayStar is trying to achieve large-scale production of thin-film solar cells with the same performance of conventional silicon-based cells, but at a much lower cost.

“Our focus is to equal the performance of silicon, which we have already done, and make it for considerably less,” said John R. Tuttle, the company’s president and chief executive officer.

The process Tuttle is using applies a thin film of copper, indium, gallium and selenide, or CIGS, to a stainless steel backing to produce solar cells that generate electricity.

The privately held company is expected to have $750,000 in revenues this year through sales of solar cells for space satellite applications. It employs five people.

If it can make the leap to large-scale production, DayStar could get a share of the $1.5 billion photovoltaic market, which includes solar cells and similar devices. The photovoltaic field grew 20 percent per year in the 1990s, and has the potential to become one of the world’s most important industries, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

If DayStar could produce cheaper cells, that could also help solar energy gain acceptance by making it cost effective with other generating technologies, said Tuttle, who was a senior scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

“This is potentially a displacement technology,” he said. “It’s akin to somebody coming out with an automobile at a quarter of the price, with the same performance.”

But it hasn’t been done yet, and Tuttle is cautious about predicting how much mass production his company can achieve. He won’t say how much he plans to produce.

With anything new, there is always a degree of uncertainty, and Tuttle said there are a series of “small challenges” ahead which he plans to deal with in the company’s transition from development to pilot production.

“Until we can demonstrate we can make acres and acres of stuff, we haven’t done it,” he said.

Though the CIGS material has demonstrated 20 years of reliability for solar use, it hasn’t been made in commercial volumes.

So no company has made it on a large scale, said Tuttle. Silicon, on the other hand, was used for computer chips, so solar cell makers using that material piggybacked on the electronics industry.

Rommel Noufi, a scientist who worked with Tuttle at the NREL, said the technical challenges of producing CIGS thin-film solar cells are not insurmountable – it’s financial backing and costly equipment that Tuttle needs.

The technology part has been worked out, but now it has to be scaled up for industry, said Noufi, principal scientist with the NREL’s National Center for Photovoltaics.

“It’s been difficult, but (Tuttle) is hanging in there,” said Noufi. “I admire him for his tenacity and belief he can make it go. My belief is, if he gets an infusion of capital, he will make it go.”

Tuttle is a small player compared to other companies trying to make commercially viable thin-film solar cells. But if he succeeds, he could be one of the few players in a promising industry. There are only a handful of companies in the chase, including Southern California-based Shell Solar, part of Shell Oil Co.; Global Solar Energy, a Tucson, Ariz., company; and Vurt Solar, a German company.

Tuttle, 43, was at the NREL center from 1986 to 1997 before founding his company in 1997. Along with Noufi, Tuttle was one of three people at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory who first developed CIGS thin-film solar cell technology.

He moved the company from Golden to Grass Valley last month because California is a hotbed for renewable energy – photovoltaics, in particular – which translates into an educated financial community, said Tuttle.

California is known for its state incentives that pay for solar energy, a power crisis that has energized interest in solar energy, and of course, plenty of sunshine.

“The incentives are good there, the atmosphere is good. I would say California is the leading state to make the atmosphere successful, ” Noufi said.

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