2007 is the International Heliophysical Year, celebrated at a time when businesses and individuals around the world are compelled to look at solar energy and other renewable energy sources to fuel a cleaner, sustainable future. In an aura of hope and ongoing progress, BAIA is looking at both American and Italian companies, offering the spotlight to innovative businesses and entrepreneurs who are making the promise of renewables become concrete on both sides of the ocean. With this goal in mind, BAIA has just hosted an event on renewable energy “From Galileo to Arnold: Redefining the Center of the Energy Universe” (pictures on Flickr), with six prestigious panelists from Innovalight, PG&E, the San Francisco Department of Environment, Solar Ventures and SRI International.
As a follow up to the insights we have learned from our panelists, we are continuing our process of discovery and promotion of these clean energy champions and I have interviewed Dr. Francesco Lemmi of Innovalight, one of the Red Herring top 100 innovators of 2007.
Francesco, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your company?
I came to Silicon Valley from the University of Rome “La Sapienza”, to work on amorphous silicon devices and physics at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) after my Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering. Most of the research activity was focused on the development of high-resolution X-ray medical imaging. After two years in Rome working as an Assistant Professor (“Ricercatore Universitario”) in Electrical Engineering, I returned to Silicon Valley. I have, then since held engineering and management positions at FlexICs, Inc. and Nanosys, Inc., working on ultra-low temperature polysilicon thin-film transistors and on Silicon nanowires, both in the area of device and process development. During this last year I have been heading the solar cell device development at Innovalight, using a proprietary “Silicon Ink” technology. In my career I have been author of 9 US patents and several more pending patent applications, as well as more than 40 publications on international scientific journals.
How would you explain to non-experts, the way Innovalight’s technology differs from the current, most common photovoltaic technology used in today’s commercial solar cells?
In a nutshell, Innovalight uses nanotechnology as a vehicle to cut the costs by a factor of 10 when compared to today’s conventional solar technology. Our product, while still in development, will look not much different to today’s solar cells. We have employed nanotechnology as a vehicle to create the product from scratch. This approach cuts out all of the very expensive processes used to manufacture solar cells today. We have chosen to develop our technology platform based on Silicon, which we believe to be the safest, most abundant and reliable material for photovoltaic applications.
What will be the benefits, in terms of cost and/or efficiency, of applying this technology to the mass production of solar cells and possibly other light-powered devices?
The key metric inhibiting the global adoption of solar cell technology is the cost to produce a watt of electricity. Solar cells today are still too expensive and cannot compete with conventional fossil fuel electricity generation. Today, solar modules cost about $5.00 per watt. For solar energy to takeoff worldwide, it must get to below $1.00 per watt. We believe we can reduce that to well below $1.00 per watt with our technology.
There seem to exist different generations of solar cells; which generation does Innovalight belong to, or are you creating a whole new breed of nanocrystal solar cells?
Generation I is the “classical” Silicon wafer based solar cell. I guess we belong to Generation II of solar cell technologies, sometimes characterized as thin-films. In the end, customers who buy solar cells will not care what technology is used or if it contains nano-crystalline technology. Decisions will be made on how much it will cost. We are focused on that and making solar energy affordable. Generation III is about future multi-junction solar cells, and holds the promise of delivering extremely high conversion efficiencies. While we believe that our Silicon Ink technology could be used in such applications, we acknowledge that the time-to-market for Gen III devices is very likely to be well above a decade. Hence, we focus on Gen II type of devices for our first product, while maintaining a possible long-term R&D interest in Gen III.
Innovalight appears to be currently focused on grid-connected solutions; is it possible that once your technology goes to market, there will be room to adapt it to autonomous energy systems, cost-effectively?
We are focused exclusively on grid-connected applications because that is where the multi billion dollar market is currently. Other markets will continue to emerge, such as portable power, but these are still very small markets with very different requirements. We see ourselves staying focused on grid applications (rooftop) for the foreseeable future.
Some of your competitors have been also performing research in nanotechnology, some on silicon thin-film solar cells, and some of them have an established network of integrators as well as the marketing and financial muscle to quickly bring their solutions to market. Do you see Innovalight compete head-to-head with them, or do you believe your technology is unique or it applies to a specific niche?
We will be competing of course. At least for the next couple of years there will be plenty of opportunities for existing and new-entrants in the market, irrespective of the technologies employed. With solar energy only representing 0.01 percent of the electrical energy market today, there will be plenty of growth opportunity for many companies. If the cost per Watt of solar energy is brought well below one dollar, the market becomes virtually endless.
Your extensive research background is partly from Italy; do you believe it is possible to adopt Innovalight’s technology now in the Italian market, and if so, do you see Innovalight establishing a presence overseas, or rather license its technology to Italian companies and/or work through local partners?
Italy, and the whole of the European continent are very important markets – in fact being the largest market today, they will factor importantly into our plans. It is not inconceivable that we will have our own operations in Europe, perhaps including Italy, in the future. As for licensing, that is something we will look at long-term. In the near to mid-term instead, as we grow, we plan on retaining a tight grip on our technology.
Do you see a fairly rapid trend developing, in the adoption of advanced solar solutions in Italy, or a more conservative approach, possibly diluted over time until proven solutions come to market?
At the present stage, and for all markets including Italy, the adoption of solar power is bound to governmental incentives, due to the still-too-high cost. A good example of how a country can expand vigorously its solar power component is given by Germany. In Germany, the extremely advantageous governmental incentives have boosted the solar energy sector to the first place worldwide. Germany has very aggressive plans to convert a sizeable portion of its total energy needs to solar in one and a half decades. Such governmental incentives have also prompted the growth of a very strong solar industry constellation of companies, including supporting businesses such as solar cell production tool makers, etc. This is ultimately the reason why Germany is going to be able to keep on their plans, over the years. Italy does have governmental incentives in place as well for solar energy, but the extent they can go to and the ease of obtaining them could be perhaps improved to boost the sector more efficiently. Over time, the cost of solar modules will be reduced and countries which have now a leading edge will still be in the best conditions to maintain it and push it further.
I would like to thank Francesco Lemmi for taking the time to speak with me today. If you have any questions for Francesco or for BAIA, please leave a comment below and we will be glad to answer.