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Sharp Solar to bring thin-film solar to US soon

Sharp Corp, one of the world's biggest makers of silicon-based solar cells, said it would introduce next generation thin film solar cells in the US market in August 2009.

The lower cost of thin film solar is seen by Sharp and its competitors as the best way to create utility-scale solar panel arrays because they can produce power cheaper than traditional photovoltaic panels.

Sharp is “already working with prospective US customers in preparation for these large-scale deployments,” said the company, which announced its plans at the Solar Power International conference being held in San Diego this week.

“As the US solar market grows, deployments of multi-megawatt utility projects and large-scale commercial installations are on the rise,” said Ron Kenedi, vice president of Sharp Solar Energy Solutions Group.

Sharp, maker of 710,000 megawatts per year of rooftop crystalline photovoltaic panels, is joining the race to expand thin film solar cells in the United States, which has been led by First Solar Inc based in Tempe, Arizona.

First Solar can make thin film panels that turn sunlight into electricity at an rate of about 10.5%, compared with 9% efficiency of the new Sharp line.

Paul Wormser, Sharp's director of solar product development in the United States, said the company is confident it can win going head-to-head with First Solar for what is expected to be a large US market of selling thin film cells to utilities, despite the lead First Solar has in efficiency ratings.

Sharp is behind First Solar in contracting large thin film solar arrays for utilities, but Kenedi said the company is in active talks. Utility companies in more than half the US states are under pressure of new laws to increase renewable power, which will boost Sharp's entreaties, he said.

First Solar has said it will be able to make 1 gigawatt (1,000 megawatts) of thin film solar by the end of 2009.

Sharp is making huge steps to gain ground on making thin film solar from only 15 megawatts a year ago to 1 gigawatt annual production, after its new plant opens in Sakai City in Osaka Prefecture in March 2010, said Daisuke “Doug” Koshima, CEO of Sharp Electronics Corp, the US sales and marketing subsidiary of Sharp Corp headquartered in Osaka.

Thin film production will start at 480 megawatts per year at Sakai City and increase to 1 gigawatt annually, hiking the company's thin film solar production to 1.16 gigawatts.

To show how fast solar cell production is growing, Koshima said that in 2007 Sharp became the first manufacturer that had cumulative solar cell production of 2 gigawatts, since the company began mass production in 1963.

By 2012, the company will make panels at a rate near 2 gigawatts each year - 1 gigawatt output of the Osaka plant, the 160 megawatts a year of second-generation thin-film solar cells to be produced at its plant in Katsuragi City in Nara Prefecture to open this month, and the company's output of conventional photovoltaic panels, Koshima said.

Thin film modules are made using less than 1% of the silicon used in crystalline solar cells, allowing for simpler manufacturing and lower production costs, but they do not produce as much electricity per panel.

Kenedi said the more traditional crystalline photovoltaic panels are best for residential needs because they are more efficient and take up less space per kilowatt produced. (Reuters)