Solar Nanotech Coming of Age

For decades, sustainability gurus have been prattling on about the promise of solar power and other renewable energy sources. But in what is beginning to look like the “new, new thing” to technology analysts, solar power might be finally coming of age thanks to the next generation of tiny flexible solar panels—not to mention billions of dollars in backing from some of Silicon Valley’s biggest investors.

Traditional solar panels were the inspiration for new "nanotech" devices.

The leading lights of the so-called “solar nanotechnology” revolution are companies like Nanosys and Nanosolar, both of Palo Alto, California, and Konarka of Lowell, Massachusetts. Engineers at these companies have created prototypes of thin rolls of highly efficient light-collecting plastics for spreading across rooftops or embedding in building materials in order to power heating, cooling and other electrical needs within. Company executives claim that once they can mass-produce these products, consumers will be able to generate all their power from the sun while only spending about as much as they do today for non-renewable energy.

While these companies and their investors are hesitant to prognosticate about when their technologies can be rolled out widely, they have intimated that mass production facilities could take five years or more to set up properly. But while these technologies might not be ready for primetime yet, many of the same venture capitalists who bankrolled the tech run-up during the 1990s are banking on solar this time around.

“The market is obviously huge, demand is huge. Besides, [alternative energy] is imperative in the world we live in,” said Bill Gurley of Benchmark Capital, a Silicon Valley venture firm whose partners got rich on investments like AOL, Ebay and Palm Computing. Still, these investors know that solar nanotechnology is not a sure thing, with long production cycles and issues of manufacturing purity presenting long-term challenges. But as the casualties mount in Iraq and oil companies get ready to dig into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, more and more forward thinking investors are hitching their wagons to the dream of solar nanotech.