Mon, May 01, 2006 - Page 11 News List

Polysilicon shortage clouds solar outlook

INVESTMENT CONCERNS Rising fossil fuel costs are driving interest in renewable energy sources, but the solar cell industry faces a serious raw material shortfall

By Jessie Ho  /  STAFF REPORTER

The rooftop of Delta Electronics Inc's new plant in the Southern Taiwan Science Park is covered by solar cells that provide part of the plant's power needs. Delta Electronics, the world's largest provider of switching power supplies and a major source for power management solutions, has also installed 6,000 solar cells on the roof of its Taipei headquarters as part of the company's drive to save energy and protect the environment.

PHOTO: LIN CHENG-CHIH, TAIPEI TIMES

On March 13, the market and investors hailed the first stock to rise above the NT$1,000 (US$31.34) per share mark in 15 years.

Unlike big-names such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp (台積電) or Hon Hai Precision Industry Co (鴻海精密), the new champion of the local bourse, E-ton Solar Tech Co (益通光能), is a relative unknown.

But the Tainan-based solar cell maker rocked the market with its initial public offering -- for which more than 600,000 investors scrambled for 265,000 shares and a rich return of NT$650,000 -- and it didn't take long for the company to claim the top spot after making its debut on the over-the-counter market on March 8.

The former king of Taiwan's public companies was also a solar cell maker, Motech Industries Inc (茂迪), E-ton's bigger rival.

The prevailing market perspective is that E-ton's share price is not reasonably valued, given its small capitalization of NT$251.58 million.

Motech, despite having earned only NT$0.56 per share for the first quarter, saw its share price reach a high of NT$885 last Friday. The share prices for both solar cell makers are pushed up by psychological factors whenever oil prices hit a new high.

Given the declining amount of fossil fuels and the world's hunger for renewable energy, the willingness of investors to jump on the solar bandwagon is understandable.

Other forms of energy -- coal, natural gas, nuclear energy, wind power, hydraulic power and terrestrial heat -- have some problems. Coal and natural gas contribute to the greenhouse effect, nuclear energy poses safety concerns, while wind power, hydraulic power and terrestrial heat are dependent on geographical factors.

In comparison, solar power is clean, safe and can be used almost everywhere, which is why it has become the most feasible and promising energy to exploit.

GENERATING POWER

A solar cell, or photovoltaic (PV) cell, contains silicon mixed with with phosphorous and boron, which create N-type silicon ("n" for negative) that has free electrons, and P-type silicon ("p" for positive) that has free holes.

When the electrons and holes mix at the junction between N-type and P-type silicon, they form a barrier, making it harder and harder for electrons on the N side to cross to the P side. Eventually, equilibrium is reached with an electric field separating the two sides.

When light, in the form of photons, hits the solar cell, its energy frees the electrons and holes. If they roam into the range of electric field, the electric field will send electrons to the N side and holes to the P side, making electrons flow through the path to their original side to unite with holes that the electric field sent there.

Each photon, given sufficient energy, will free exactly one electron, and result in a free hole as well. If this happens close enough to the electric field, or if free electron and free hole happen to wander into the field's range of influence, the field will send the electron to the N side and the hole to the P side. The electron flow provides the current, and the cell's electric field causes a voltage. With both current and voltage, the power is produced.

BOOMING MARKET

Even though the first solar cell was used in a Russian man-made satellite back in 1957, solar power has yet to become a major energy source worldwide.

According to a report by Solarbuzz LLC, a San Francisco-based solar energy consultancy, worldwide PV installations increased by 34 percent to a record high of 1,460 megawatts (MW) last year, up from 1,086MW installed during 2004. But solar energy production accounted for less than 0.01 percent of primary energy demand in the world, which is a far cry from solving the energy crisis.

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