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U.S. Solar Startups Struggling to Compete with Chinese Firms

Solar startups talk about how they hope to take on Chinese firms.

Solar companies presenting business plans to investors at a National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) conference this week devoted particular attention to how they hope to compete with Chinese manufacturers. The audience at the NREL Industry Growth Forum in Denver consisted largely of venture capitalists and partners from private equity firms.

Stellaris, a company that assembles solar modules in Lowell, MA, has already received $6.1 million in funding to develop techniques for packaging silicon and thin-film cells. The company, represented at the conference by CEO James Paull, is seeking further financing in 2010.

Paull said that while European companies’ cell-to-module costs are 70 cents per watt, China’s are half that. “Solar modules have become a commodity, and China is dominating,” he said. Like most of the other presenters, Paull didn’t reveal too much about his company’s technology. But he said that Stellaris hopes to save costs by adding passive plastic concentrators to silicon and thin-film cells and by reducing cell sizes.

An executive from a large European solar company expressed skepticism, however, that the US will ever be able to catch up with Chinese solar manufacturers. The executive, who manages his company’s operations in China, said his company had explored manufacturing in California and Texas but that the labor costs were much too high. That said, he was at the conference looking for new solar technologies to buy up–an area where the US does still have an edge.

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