Renewables EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute, has suggested that orbiting geostationary solar panels could beam several GWe of energy to ground-based receivers by microwave. According to EPRI, solar panels in space would receive eight times more energy that on the Earth’s surface and would avoid the low light intensity problems associated with cloud cover and night fall. The idea is not new, but technological and economic developments point to economic feasibility within the next few decades. NASA manager John Mankins says that key developments in a number of technologies such as robotics and electronics are likely to reduce the cost of such systems. Others have suggested that Moon-based solar platforms would be more practical, with abundant silicon, iron and aluminium available, huge shipping costs would be avoided.

Back on Earth, a number of solar developments have taken place already. BP Amoco is under pressure from shareholders to massively increase its investment in renewable energy, and in particular solar, following the announcement of a $250 million, five-year, investment programme. The company enhanced its ‘green’ credentials recently through the purchase of an 18.5 per cent stake in, a leading US renewable energy supply company.

A number of large projects are under development. GreenMountain has announced a 100 kWe system in Berkeley, Ca., above Powerlight Corp.’s manufacturing facility. The power will be generated by Astropower cells and marketed to customers of Green Mountain Power. Astropower recently announced a new line of solar panels that it claims are the largest and most powerful commercially available. Each of the 8 inch diameter cells produce 4.2 We, these are arrayed into 150 We units.

Other oil majors and generation companies are also investing in solar generation. For example, Shell Solar and Phillips Project Centre have announced the launch of Solar Power System, a battery power system using Shell solar arrays.

A large initiative in the US is the ‘million solar roof challenge’ issued last August by the Utility Photovoltaic Group. To date, 13 of the 93 members have met the conditions of the challenge including the LA Dept. of Water & Power and ComEd of Chicago.

Elsewhere, a $75 million project in Egypt has been awarded to Solel Solar Systems Ltd. of Israel. With $50 million of the project funds coming from the World Bank, Solel expects to receive $15 – 20 million. A number of manufacturing developments are also underway. In Japan, Sanyo Electric is to invest ¥33 billion ($304 million) to boost solar production over the next five years to 120 MWe. Sanyo also announced plans to build a 3.4 MWe solar power system at its headquarters in Gifu Prefecture. Construction of the ¥6 billion ($55.3 million) development is expected to begin in February next year. In the US, Energy Conversion Devices (ECD) and N.V. Bekaert are to launch a new manufacturing site that will produce solar panels with a capacity of 25 MWe annually. At a cost of $84 million, Bekaert has brought a 19 per cent stake it the ECD subsidiary United Solar Systems Corp.