SAN JOSE, Calif., April 7, 2007 -- Using machinery that looks like giant aluminum film developers, a company called Miasole in the heart of Silicon Valley is rolling out sheets of stainless steel coated with materials that will convert sunlight into electricity.
The company hopes to mass-produce affordable solar panels to power homes and businesses across the country.
"I'm sort of a serial entrepreneur," said David Pearce, president and CEO of Miasole. "This is my sixth venture-backed company and this is the most exciting market opportunity I've ever been in."
He's excited because only one or two percent of electricity in the United States is generated by the power of the sun, and this may be the dawn of a new age for solar power and alternative energy.
Watch Brian Rooney's report on Silicon Valley "Going Green" tonight on "World News." Check local listings for air times.
Still smarting from the Internet bubble burst, some of the technical braintrust of Silicon Valley is turning to what may be the next big thing, generating new kinds of energy for a country increasingly worried about dependence on foreign oil and the threat of global warming caused by the release of greenhouse gases.
These are some of the same people who changed the world with the silicon computer chip, the hard drive, digital technology, even the Apple iPod.
"Looking at the world's biggest problems, software is not going to address it," said Lyndon Rive, CEO of a company called Solar City that is pushing affordable solar power by convincing whole residential neighborhoods to go solar, thereby keeping down the cost.
Rive used to be in the software business but now says his future is in developing a new form of electric production that holds down the emission of harmful carbon dioxide.
"It's one of the few industries where you have the opportunity to make some money and do good," Rive said.
Stephen Levy, a Silicon Valley economist, said, "It's a moment in time when the next great possibility is launched. We don't know that it's going to be a certainty, and we don't know how big it's going to be. But it's right now where the companies are trying to get in on the ground floor."
Investors are beginning to pour in hundreds of millions of dollars, hoping to catch the next wave at a time when cost, technology and the need for new energy are all coming together.
Silicon Valley companies are also working on fuel cells, devices that convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity, plus biomass fuels that are derived from such things as grass and seaweed, and a new generation of electric cars.
A company called Tesla Motors is trying to re-invent the electric car with a $100,000 two-seater designed to put some flash into green driving. As an example of the crossover thinking going on in Silicon Valley, the Tesla will be powered by 6,800 lithium-ion cells, batteries similar to those used in laptop computers. Tesla plans to follow with a four-door electric sedan.
But the most promising in the short run could be solar power. The technology for converting sunlight into electricity has been around for as long as 50 years, but now scientists and company managers are conquering the problems of production and cost that have discouraged the use of solar panels.
Most solar-electric panels are made with silicon, the basic stuff of the computer chip, and require similar manufacturing techniques to those used in the computer industry, Silicon Valley veterans are bringing knowledge and experience to solar development.
An 11 megawatt solar power plant was recently completed in Portugal. It's small by the standards of power plants, but it stands as proof that solar power can be produced dependably at an acceptable cost.
Richard Swanson, president of a company called Sunpower, which makes high-efficiency solar panels, said the solar industry today is like 1983 for the computer chip, just on the brink of becoming everyday technology.