Hampered by its high cost, solar power accounts for less than 1% of world-wide electricity generation. It costs 35 to 45 cents to produce a kilowatt hour of electricity from solar panels, compared with about three to five cents burning coal, according to the International Energy Agency. A different approach, known as concentrating solar power, uses huge arrays of mirrors or solar dishes to track the sun and collect its heat to make electricity. Yet even that costs nine to 12 cents to generate one kilowatt hour.
SolFocus is one of nearly a dozen start-ups competing alongside established solar giants like Japan’s Sharp Corp. to develop a solar panel that is both cheap and efficient. Well-known tech venture capitalists like Apax Partners, Benchmark Capital and US Venture Partners, as well as Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, have poured cash into solar start-ups in recent years. Meanwhile, established leaders in conventional solar panels like Sharp, the U.K.’s BP PLC and Germany’s Q-Cells AG have well-funded research labs working on their own technology.