Sharp Solar Targets Wide Green Market
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The booming solar energy sector is rapidly spreading to untapped markets, as technology for turning sunlight into power improves, making the business a key part of Sharp Electronics' future growth strategy, a Sharp Corp executive said on Wednesday.
With current production capacity of about 710 megawatts of solar cells, Sharp is the world's leading solar cell maker, and the company has said that business, along with LCD televisions, would be its main focus in the coming years.
Sharp's push comes even as the solar market splinters into home, commercial and utility-scale projects that use a divergent group of materials and technologies to build the environmentally-friendly electricity source.
"We feel that our strength is we can build many products," Ron Kenedi, vice president for Sharp's Solar Energy Solutions Group, told Reuters.
"We are very comfortable in that role of building different products for different markets," he said.
Demand from companies for rooftop solar panels is surging, as those businesses seek to bolster their green credentials while meeting at least a portion of their power needs.
Sharp's panels were chosen by Google for a project that will eventually reach 1.6 megawatts in capacity at the Internet company's Mountain View, California headquarters.
Those types of projects have replaced the residential rooftop market as the leading market driver, Kenedi said.
"That's becoming the most vibrant market these days," he said.
Although most of its production uses silicon as the key component inside its photovoltaic cells to produce electricity from sunlight, Sharp said in November it planned to raise its output capacity for thin-film solar cells to 160 megawatts per year, up from 15 MW, to meet growing demand in Europe.
Though typically less efficient than silicon-based solar cells, many industry experts forecast that thin-film solar may be the best growth technology in the sector because it can be built into other materials and is more flexible than silicon panels.
Sharp is also developing a thin-film solar cell factory at a plant in Sakai City, Osaka that will ultimately produce 1 gigawatt of cells per year. Solar cell production at that plant, which will also produce LCD televisions, will begin in 2010.
RIDING THE RETAIL METER
Despite its different products, Sharp's focus will for now remain in selling solar systems to power users rather than wholesale providers.
"Working on the other side of the meter is very hard ... we're more comfortable working on the retail side of the meter," Kenedi said.
But as the photovoltaic technology improves, Sharp, like others in the solar sector, will likely push to develop utility-scale projects as well.
At the moment, tightness in supplies of silicon have limited the growth of worldwide solar production, but new supplies of silicon are expected to begin reaching the market in the second half of 2008.
"As the silicon shortage eases up, we're going to have the capacity to develop all these markets," he said.
Still, Kenedi declined to forecast when Sharp would reach "grid parity" or the price at which its cells were competitive with other electricity sources.
"The solar field is strewn with bones of people who predicted when we would hit grid parity," he said.
(By Matt Daily; Editing by Andre Grenon)
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