Polysilicon is a harsh mistress

High prices for the crucial ingredient were supposed to hurt solar power's growth. Now, so are low prices.


Andrew Leonard
June 3, 2009 2:11PM (UTC)

In keeping with the tradition started on the the very first day of How the World Works I remain devoted to bringing readers all the latest news about polysilicon -- a key ingredient in both semiconductors and photovoltaic panels.

You may recall that skyrocketing polysilicon prices were supposed to strangle solar power's growth. That didn't happen.

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But now, Reuters is reporting that polysilicon prices have fallen so far that solar power is in trouble again -- or, to be precise, that segment of the solar industry that specifically steered away from dependence on polysilicon -- so called thin solar.

A collapse in silicon prices threatens to put the heat on solar panel makers that use little of the material, such as Japan's Sharp Corp and even low-cost industry darling First Solar Inc.

Spot prices on the solar industry's key raw material, polysilicon, have halved since January, giving a leg up to solar panels that rely heavily on the material.

Thin-film solar panels, made with little or no polysilicon, are starting to lose their competitive edge over China-made silicon-based modules, which are more efficient in transforming the sun's rays into electricity.

High-priced or low-priced, polysilicon appears to be a real pain in the solar posterior.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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