Thursday, February 23, 2012

Solar Company Natcore Setting up Shop in Rochester

The concept of solar power is nearly irresistible: an endless cascade of sunlight — the ultimate renewable resource — churning out cheap electricity.

The reality of solar power, though, is more problematic as it remains far from cheap. And the U.S. Energy Department projects that electricity from a hypothetical solar energy project going online in 2016 would be about twice as expensive as juice from a new coal plant and more than three times costlier than a natural gas-fed power plant.

But New Jersey-based Natcore Technologies Inc. sees the green of cash in the golden sunshine. The solar energy technology firm is in the midst of setting up a research and development facility at Eastman Business Park that CEO Chuck Provini said should be operational within a couple weeks.

Once it is set up, the company plans to hire 10 to 15 people to staff it as it works on three separate, parallel technology tracks: “black silicon” solar cells that use silicon wafers etched with tiny pores that reflect back less light; stacks of tandem solar cells, each working on different wavelengths of light; and flexible, thin-film solar cells.

Each technology has the possibility of making solar more commercially viable by either cutting the cost of manufacture or upping the efficiency, Provini said last week as he was in town to visit Natcore’s facilities in Eastman Kodak Co.’s Building 308.

Later this month, Natcore plans to bring in prospective customers/investors such as representatives from an Italian solar panel maker, a Chinese solar cell maker and an Indian energy company. Part of Natcore’s sales pitch, Provini said, will be trying to convince those firms to set up manufacturing operations in the United States in exchange for access to Natcore technology — though ultimately, he added, investors will be in the driver’s seat of that decision.

Natcore’s efforts come as the solar photovoltaic market is in the midst of serious challenges, from numerous European nations cutting solar energy subsidies and an oversupply of solar components globally sending prices nosediving to the political issues surrounding the bankruptcy and liquidation of California thin-film solar cell maker Solyndra.

But the oversupply issue is due largely to China subsidizing manufacturers there, and technology under development will make the glut of industry-standard solar cell components on the market now obsolete, Provini said. “You make dramatic changes, you own the industry,” he said.

Natcore also is counting on the cost of oil rising, particularly as a cash-strapped U.S. government cuts oil subsidies, to make solar more financially competitive, Provini said.

The company’s key assets are a group of patents it has licensed or owns outright. And it expects to start earning income from licensing that technology to others later this year. Other revenue streams, such as manufacturing solar cell coating equipment or the reselling of chemicals needed in the manufacturing process, would follow.

Natcore announced in December that it had signed a patent license agreement with the U.S. Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory giving it access to NREL patents to develop and commercialize black silicon solar cells. And it hopes to have prototype black silicon solar cells within a couple of months, with greater efficiency than what is on the market today.

Tandem solar cell prototypes could be ready within six to 12 months, Provini said. And a workable prototype of flexible, thin-film solar cells — made with Kodak’s thin-film manufacturing capabilities and costing far less to install than traditional solar cells — would take the same amount of time if the company can find investors in the technology, Provini said.

The company signed a lease in July with Kodak. The Building 308 lab will consolidate lab space the company currently has at Ohio State and Rice universities. Being near Kodak and its thin-film capabilities were one key reason why the company opted to put its R&D operations there.

Aside from that, said Thomas J. Scarpa, corporate development officer, “The intellectual pool we can draw on, this is an excellent place. University of Rochester. Rochester Institute of Technology. Ex-Kodakers.”

Natcore is emblematic of what Kodak has been trying to do with its sprawling Eastman Business Park manufacturing campus — make it over into an industrial park. More than two dozen firms, including spinoffs from and former suppliers of Kodak, operate there today.

Kodak is currently in the midst of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy and is in talks about potential sales of some or all of the campus. However, Provini said, “I don’t think (the bankruptcy) is going to affect us.”

And, Provini added with a smile, if Kodak wanted to take some of the hundreds of millions of dollars Citigroup has loaned it during bankruptcy and invest it in Natcore technology, “That’d be a great way to reinvent themselves.”


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