Q: Edison used to think pictorially when he would come up with his inventions. Is that how you came up with yours?
A: I was really not in solar cells. I knew nothing about them. I saw solar cells being used on satellites. I thought they were terribly underdeveloped and primitive. So, I got a series of ideas which improved the efficiency of that solar cell by 50 percent.
The need wasn't absolute. Satellites were flown before with solar cells. But they just looked too primitive. It's very hard to say how you get these ideas. Probably by seeing that something could be done much better, somehow. There must be a better way -- even if you don't know it yet, how. You feel it, somehow, that things are just not right.
I am a physicist. I started computing. How much energy in the sun? How much energy is falling on my roof? After a Ph.D., I still had not the idea. Really, nobody talks about these things. So, you compute this all and you realize that there is more energy on the roof than the house will ever use! There is a great respect, suddenly.
Then you look at these extremely expensive solar cells that are used for the satellites. More than $1,000 per watt. Incredible number! It's okay for a satellite. So a few million dollars goes into the power system -- the total satellite is maybe $20 million. But for earthly use, it was at least a thousand times too expensive. So, how to bring this down to normal use on Earth? That was a real difficult question. Right now we are about $8 a watt from over $1000. At $1 a watt, it would be competitive with the utilities. Tremendous progress has been made.
Q: What's the problem with getting it down?
A: The biggest problem is the silicon itself. Silicon is only available as it is used now in the semiconductor industry -- very high purity at very high cost. This silicon process that I have introduced -- I even use a new word for it. I call it "semicrystaline silicon." This did not exist in the English language before. But now everybody uses it. It's basically to be able to use relatively impure silicon and have itself crystalize into a big block. Like a very big brick. From which you can slice off wafers, if you like. A big square. Some of them are as big as the kitchen tile. Just let nature do the work. Beautiful crystalities. Esthetically, they also improve the panel tremendously, because it's really like many, many diamonds. It's a beautiful structure.
Q: How did you know that this was going to work when you tried it? Were you just fiddling around?
A: No, no. Well, maybe. I had a mental idea and then I wrote a proposal in 1976 to the government about this. I was laughed off. That's the truth. I got, "This guy's crazy." But now, $40 million later, it's being produced. Millions a year. An incredible thing. It only happened in two years or so. Very soon there was a whole factory.
Q: Do you get a twinge of excitement being on the brink of discovery?
A: Very much so. I'm known to be a provocateur for new ideas. It's just too easy to dismiss things. To say "Ah, this is not going to work" or, "It's going to be too expensive" or, "Too difficult to control." Fortunately, at least in the '70s, I was in full control of the company. Therefore, I did these things, anyway. I didn't need approval.
Q: How did you come to start Solarex? Rumor has it that you started it up right in your dining room.
A: Basement. Not the dining room. There was not much I could do up in the dining room. But the basement, yes.
In space, the solar cells are not encapsulated. There's no environmental problem. There's a vacuum. (To use them on Earth) I had to build some structure that would survive the outside elements. Which isn't a trivial problem. After all, there is rain, there is dirt. Many materials degrade under the sun tremendously. It was mostly finding some reliable system, that it will last for years. Once convinced of this, I really could not do the solar cells in my basement. That's high technology. At that point I raised something less than $200,000. That's how I got started.
Q: Solarex is the world's first solar breeder. It can actually reproduce cells of its like kind. It had a pretty successful opening in October of 1982. Is it still considered a success today?
A: No. It is an experiment. It took so many years to just raise enough money to do it. As soon as it was built, it looked beautiful. The opening that you are referring to was really for the opening of the building. It is not really in production yet. There's a large system operating the whole factory. Making electricity. Heating and cooling and maintaining the temperature of the building. It's now that the production facility will be finally moved in.
But it's always limited by the monies available for such things. It's ahead of its time and it's true, it's not truly economic. That was not the goal. The goal was to learn. Two hundred kilowatts is the power in there and that's an enormous power. It's the equivalent to maybe 40 houses. The management of that power -- the interconnection of these (solar) panels and how to convert them to AC and distribute them reliably really tested something else.
We learned a fantastic amount from it. Very much of the equipment broke down. The solid-state controllers and things just burned out, melted down. Nobody ever tried to use that much power before. Now you find out how to do it right. Now the equipment is okay. It's not burning up any more. It was a big struggle. The one thing that did not burn down is the conventional motor -- driving the generator -- the two of those, those always worked.
Q: Solarex is 30 percent owned -- .
Q: You knew this question was coming up. But I have to ask it. It's 30 percent owned by Standard Oil of Indiana. Is there a conflict in having an oil company having that much of a share in a company that is trying to develop an alternate form of energy that one day may rival the oil company? A lot of people tend to look at oil companies and say that they are the ones who are stifling solar.
A: I just want to be careful about what I say. I don't think that photovoltaics is now in any way competing with oil. In the long run, things just may turn around and there may not be oil and there may be a lot of photovoltaics. This could happen -- 30, 40 years, God knows when. By that time there should be an awful lot of photovoltaics around. In the hardware store and everywhere. You could argue that it's really in phase. As one of them decreases, the other one increases. There should not be a conflict.
In fact, the oil companies do believe now very much in photovoltaics and they are into every company. There have been moves in the last year or two to buy up everything in sight. Mobil has taken 100 percent interest, Shell taken 100 percent interest, not even letting another interest in. British Petroleum has moved to take over.
Solarex was really the one company which tried to have a balancing act. And that is very dangerous. No, dangerous is not the word. But, it's a very difficult game. The resources of the oil companies are enormous. To invest large sums of money with a potential return in the next 15-20 years is not in the normal investor's equation. An oil company putting, say, $50 million into photovoltaics -- for them, this is small change.
Q: What do you say to those who have the suspicion that oil companies are latching onto solar with the hope of someday keeping solar prices artificially high? There's the notion of "Well, they'll find some way to put a tax on the sun."
A: In my opinion, photovoltaics will end up in the hands of the oil companies. Totally. It's almost there, already. How this will be managed on a large scale, it's hard to predict. But, no doubt it will come from the same source as gasoline now.
Q: Would you recommend solar as a good place for a scientist to start?
A: You will end up working for the oil companies! (Laughter.)
It's obviously going to employ an enormous number of people. It's like if you were discussing transistors in 1955. Everybody knew that it won't work because the radio tubes are so great and these transistors are terrible. They burn out all the time. To get in at this time is a very good time.
Q: What kind of formal education would you recommend to spur creativity?
A: It's not so much the innovation. Not so much the laboratory work. That's usually the cheapest element in this whole thing. Scientists are cheap. (Laughter.) Not really. But you don't need too many to have a lot of innovation. You don't need too much money to demonstrate something in a laboratory.
To industrialize it, frequently, not everything is in a large scale. This is what holds things up. A good example is we have the technology to produce a very inexpensive silicon -- which we need. Just to put up one plant for this new technology, we're spending $20 million in West Virginia. It's like a steel mill, to try to produce this cheap substance. It's just an infinite struggle to get this first thing on line. After you have done it and everything works -- finally -- other plants will have to be built. Suddenly you need people of all categories -- physicists, metalurgists, electrical engineers -- everybody. Because the technology is ground up. We start from sand. We get the silicon from that and build up to a whole operating system.
Q: So, it's not so much creativity as -- .
A: Oh, creativity never hurt. But it's not a limiting element now.
Q: Are we focusing on the best use of solar right now? It seems almost limitless what one could do with it. Solar cars? Solar clothing?
A: Solar cars have to wait. It's not practical now. The big element is energy that we can use to displace human work. Pumping. Refrigeration in a fishing village. Electrification of a fishing village. Things like that. That's where the real future is.
Q: How long will it be before the average homeowner can afford these photovoltaic cells?
A: You need enormous mass production for this. It will be available as time goes by because the capacity is increasing every year. But, it may be 10, 15 years before photovoltaics are cheap enough for everybody.
There's even more to it. We don't have the infrastructure. If for some reason we could produce this all tomorrow, we would still have the problem of who's going to install it? Who knows how these systems work? How does it fit the roof? Even though there are technical solutions for these questions, there is not the infrastructure capable of handling it. At the end it will have to come down to the average builder knows how to do it. You can telephone the electrical repairman. He can do it.
It's not really the technological development that's holding up progress. What's determining the rate of progress is really the rate of investment.
Q: You mean that you can get the price down to that of our current electricity?
Q: Today? We have the technology?
A: Yes. Absolutely. Assuming that megawatts are being made and thousands and thousands of people work on it and these production lines are automated and there are people out in the field who kow how to use it.
Q: So, what's the hold up with people financing it, then?
A: Any 1 percent of any energy is a multibillion-dollar business. Therein lies the trouble. The investments are becoming very large. You cannot have a photovoltaics company that is successful at $100 million dollars. It's not possible. One has to think in billions.
Q: When will it be big enough?
A: I really think in the 1990s this will absolutely happen. From (the oil embargo of) '73 on there was this heroic early time. When Nixon put together his energy program, photovoltaics was listed as the 10th likely alternate energy that would succeed. Now it's really number one in everybody's mind. Credibility has been established in the '70s. Suddenly it moved from this pioneering stage into an industrialization cycle where there is competition and companies will be bought out and merged and smashed and everything else will happen to them.
The real problem is not so much the money. What bothers me more is the outlook, the mentality which develops -- "Energies are for the next century." Normally, nobody is against photovoltaics. It's beautiful. It's apple pie. It's the flag. It's motherhood. You can't be against it. It's really that beautiful. The way they go against it is to put it in the next century. It is some future thing -- preferably after the year 2000. That kind of mentality would dry up investments and just put you at the research level.
Q: What about the entrepreneur? Is it financially possible for him to survive apart from a large scientific corporation.?
A: In photovoltaics, no. It would be a mistake to start now a company in this field because you can't catch up with the situation. There are already enormous investments.
You start your own company, you're out there like a salesman, pedaling your hardware that you just built. That's why it's a heroic time. Everybody does everything; everybody knows about everything. In the case of something like photovoltaics, where your secretary cannot spell the word, you try to educate everyone. It's a very painful process. How many meetings where the basic question was "What is this photovoltaics? How does it work?" I end up explaining things. Then the panels will be bought and somebody's going to test it for a year, and think about it and measure it and "Is it really working? It's not dying?" Frequently these contacts only bring about business two or three years later.
On the other hand, there is going to be this infrastructure where I am sure there are many new business opportunities. Assume the oil companies will own all the fundamental means of production. There will be big trucks carrying the solar panels from the factories. But the other end, where this is all assembled into an operating system, distributed and installed in your house -- I'm sure there will be a lot of opportunities in this area.
There may be companies that specialize in building solar pumps. It could end a drought. But somebody needs to specialize in this. His faculty will be to combine the right motor with the right pump and figure out how a reliable unit can be put into the ground. The same with respect to refrigerators. A good example is Africa. Even if you give them a thousand panels, it's going to sit there. What they really need is water; what they need is cooking; what they really need is electricity. Understand that one has to deliver functions. It's the end product, operational. Everything should be there.
Q: What do you say to the critic who said that for the next 25 years solar will have about as much impact "as a mosquito bite on an elephant's fanny"?
A: That's a very cheap statement, I should say. It couldn't possibly come from an intellectual. It's the same to say the first two automobiles running around -- how much influence will it have, as opposed to horses? Every year it has a greater impact. I would like to see these people 10 years from now.