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Solar Power's Breakout Year

The solar industry is the Ugly Betty of clean technology. Photovoltaic panels aren't pretty and solar power isn't yet cheap. But Solar keeps plugging along in its chunky glasses and thick sweaters, inching ever closer to its full potential.
The solar industry is the Ugly Betty of clean technology. Photovoltaic panels aren't pretty and solar power isn't yet cheap. But Solar keeps plugging along in its chunky glasses and thick sweaters, inching ever closer to its full potential.Like Betty, Solar neds to stay plucky, and it can't let a little thing like the worst economic crises in decades slow it down.

Solar has a viable role in clean tech, an industry that will play a key role in turning around the U.S. economy. Already, it's off to a bright start. Let us take a look:

On Monday, Toshiba announced its "full-scale entry" into the solar photovoltaic systems business. The company sees applications for solar technologies beyond consumer electronics, a niche it knows well. Having created a Photovoltaic Systems Division, Toshiba now plans to apply its Super Charge ion Battery (SCiB) technology to large, megawatt-scale projects for utility and industrial plants.

Sharp Electronics, another brand better known for its consumer products than its alt energy components, has solar bona fides: It's been in the solar game for nearly 50 years (who knew?) A 2- megawatt solar energy system at the Denver International Airport is powered by more than 9,000 Sharp solar panels. The system, which covers more than 7 acres, will generate more than 3 million kilowatt hours annually.

A leader in solar cell production, Sharp is on the verge of introducing next-generation thin film solar cells to the U.S. market.

In December Meraki Wireless Networks unveiled Meraki Solar, a solar-powered Wi-Fi mesh kit that allows the rapid deployment of large outdoor, self-sufficient networks. (You may have heard of Meraki. It's a provider of free public WiFi in San Francisco.) Meraki Solar runs on the same type of a lithium iron phosphate battery used to power the One-Laptop-Per-Child (OLPC) computer. These networks can be deployed in disaster areas and in parts of the world where wired networks don't exist.

Toshiba, Sharp and Meraki are off to a strong start. What they are doing may not seem as sexy as some other technologies, but it's vitally important. More companies have to be willing to invest in solar and other clean technologies -- both as buyers and sellers -- so we can start to pull ourselves out of this economic pit.