PrimeStar strikes NREL deal

Longmont’s PrimeStar Solar, Inc. continues making progress towards its goal of starting commercial production of low-cost cadmium telluride (CdTe) photovoltaic (PV) modules, which generate electricity from sunlight.

Last week, PrimeStar announced an $870,000 deal to transition CdTe technology developed at Golden’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) into commercial production. The company also announced it has leased a 16,000 square-foot facility near NREL in Golden to develop a pilot plant. NREL is operated for the U.S. Energy Department by Midwest Research Institute and Battelle.

CdTe is one of several new technologies trying to challenge mainstream PV cells, which are built on expensive polycrystalline silicon wafers. CdTe and other alternative approaches typically convert sunlight less efficiently, but offer the potential for lower cost and complexity, since their thin-film cells can be built atop conventional glass or even plastic. NREL’s CdTe cells have been shown to convert up to 16.5% of solar energy into electricity, well above the 10% efficiency of most other thin-film approaches (though less than the 20% efficiency of industry leader SunPower Corp.’s silicon-based PV cells).

PrimeStar’s NREL connection pre-dates the latest deal. In December, the company recruited Ken Zweibel, a noted thin-film PV researcher and 27-year NREL veteran, as its president and chairman. Founded last year, the privately held company thus far has raised $6 million in seed funds.

Yet PrimeStar has plenty of company. Investors poured $242 million into solar energy projects during the first three quarters of 2006 according to Venture Power, an industry newsletter.

Others developing CdTe solar cells include First Solar, AVA Technologies and Solar Fields. Different thin-film technology approaches are being pursued by Japan’s Honda and Germany’s Wurth Solar, as well as startups Nanosolar, Miasole, and Heliovolt.

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