Making a profit from renewable energies

Wednesday, 29 March, 2006

One of the world's best-known oil and gas exploration and production companies is set to become move into alternative renewable energies through its involvement in the development of solar power.

The London-based BP energy group said the technology involved in producing solar cells and panels that convert the sun's rays into electricity is starting to break the barrier to economic viability, as instanced by BP recently making its first annual profit in the international solar power business after 30 years of work in the field.

On the back of this success it is undertaking a five-year expansion that will more than double its global production capacity of solar cells to more than 200 megawatts (MW) by the end of 2006.

Commercial manager of BP Solar, Dave Campbell, said: "BP continues to invest in this business because of the remarkable market growth " currently 35-40 per cent a year " and because we have been able to demonstrate sustainable profitability. Solar is no longer just a good reputation decision; it's a smart business decision."

Experts maintain that several factors are contributing to solar's rapid growth. These include high oil prices, concerns about national energy security and "aggressive' international targets on carbon dioxide emissions that threaten to dampen the continued use of fossil fuels to generate electricity.

This has led to fresh efforts to bring down the higher cost of solar power and which is now being achieved by economies of scale as the industry grows. Campbell believes that solar power will reach price parity with other energies in certain countries within five years. He predicts: "In the next 20 years, we expect that solar will represent an increasing percentage of world energy supply."

BP foresaw the potential of solar power as early as 1973 and claims to be the first to move solar electric technology from solely powering systems in spacecraft to commercial needs for our planet. It also claims to be the first company to commercialise semi-crystalline cells, develop a low-cost silicon-ingot casting process, and produce semi-transparent solar modules for BP service station canopies and other roofing applications.

As a result, its BP Solar subsidiary is now one of the world's largest solar power companies with systems supplied to more than 160 countries, and with major manufacturing plants at Sydney, Australia; Frederick, United States; Madrid, Spain; and Bangalore, India, employing a workforce of more than 2,000. BP concentrates on solar cells and modules for the production of electricity rather than those that use solar thermal to heat water.

Steve Westwell, head of BP Solar, said there are many signs that indicate just how much of a mass-market solar power will become in the future. He explained: "The annual industry growth in 2004 was more than 40 per cent and over 1,000MW were installed around the world. Every time the solar power industry doubled in size, the prices fell by 20 per cent " and that happens practically every three years. In the last five years BP has already invested 500 million US dollars in solar power activities.

"During the next few years, Germany, California and other parts of the United States and Spain will be significant growth markets. The solar power capacity installed by BP Solar in Germany alone during 2004 will contribute to a reduction in CO2 emissions in a magnitude of at least 500,000 tons over the entire service life of the modules."

Although the efficiency of solar cells has risen by more than 40 per cent in the last 10 years, the industry is still seeking ways to further improve the effectiveness of the production technology.

This could be achieved through research and a reduction in the numerous and costly stages of work required to produce solar cells. Westwell believes both these aspects could add 30 per cent in efficiency. BP Solar is also working with key institutions such as the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany and the US Northwestern University to research potential solar technologies for the future.

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