Sunday, March 08, 2009

under an indian sun

Can an upstart Indian DVD maker beat Google to the punch in solar energy?

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
March 7, 2009

NEW DELHI — Ratul Puri, the 35-year-old executive director of Moser Baer India, looks like Adrian Brody's kid brother and talks like he swallowed the last four volumes of the Harvard Business Review. But he's no puffed up heir to the throne of daddy's business.

Since Puri returned to India from college in the United States in 1994, he's helped transform Moser Baer from a rinky-dink maker of floppy disks into a $400 million high-tech company that straddles business as diverse as the optical media, home entertainment, consumer electronics and solar energy sectors.

Today, Moser Baer is among the world's top five makers of blank CDs and DVDs, and virtually owns the Indian market for storage media. In 2007, after the company discovered a method of making pre-recorded DVDs at about half the price of existing technologies, Puri spearheaded a move into home entertainment that has already revolutionized the Indian market — where the company has acquired more than 10,000 titles and slashed the retail price of DVD movies to about $1 from $10-$15 before it entered the sector. And in 2008 it began unveiling a range of DVD players, LCD TVs and other consumer electronics products that independent observers have said offer the same features and quality of leading international brands for a tenth of the cost.

But the company's most exciting move is its venture into making thin-film solar energy panels, where its expertise in shaving down costs has the potential to spark a revolution in this power-starved country. “India has a massive opportunity in solar. Five, ten, fifteen years down the road it can be amongst the world's largest markets,” Puri told GlobalPost in a recent interview.

That enthusiasm might seem unrealistic from an Indian company that until a couple of years ago was known exclusively for stamping out blank DVDs, especially now that lower oil prices and financial turmoil have stilled some of the clamor for clean energy. But Puri claims that his enormous CD and DVD volumes actually give him more experience in coating thin-film silicon — the essential technology that Moser Baer's solar cells will employ — than virtually any other company in the world. “We plan to have 600-odd megawatts of capacity by 2010,” he said, “which will get us to the magic $1 a watt [that it will take to compete with conventional power].”

Moser Baer plans investments of nearly $3.2 billion in research, development and manufacturing of solar power products — the "thin film modules" and other silicon bits and pieces that make solar power work.

The key to success, Puri says, will be the company's expertise in lowering manufacturing costs. One of the first Indian manufacturers to successfully compete internationally, Moser Baer entered high-tech manufacturing at a time when the general consensus was that Indian manufacturing was a basket case.

In one of the dustiest places on the planet, the company built a massive “clean room” for disk manufacture that required an air conditioning unit that takes up the entire second floor of the factory, and installed their own diesel-fueled power generation facility, since even a brief electricity outage would spoil the melted silicon. And that was at a time when nobody believed blank CDs could be made cheaply enough to replace floppies. “There isn't one big factor [to cutting costs], it's a lot of little factors,” Puri said. “Ten years ago, it would have been impossible to believe that you could have a DVD that you could sell for 10 cents a disk and make money, but today it's real. So similar to that in the solar space.”

Already, touching $1 a watt would put the Indian firm in some pretty elite company. Only a handful of firms claim to have reached that price point so far, including U.S.-based First Solar and Nanosolar, which has received financial backing from Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Nanosolar uses — attention science fans — copper indium gallium diselenide to build its solar cells, while First Solar uses cadmium telluride-based cells. For its part, Moser Baer uses amorphous silicon. All three technologies have their proponents.

But making DVDs has convinced Puri that he can lower the costs of producing amorphous silicon cells again and again. “We're designing new anti-reflective coatings which then impact the light, we've driven the thickness of the glass down, we've tried to design a better system of components around the basic panel to take costs out, we've innovated a lot on the process recipes, which allows much higher throughput for the facilities,” he said. “It's a lot of little things that contribute to that road map to a sub $1 a watt price point.”

If the company gets there by 2010, that could help India leapfrog to clean energy the way it bypassed terrestrial telephone networks and went straight to cellular, which would be good news for the rest of the world. Despite the much-heralded nuclear deal with the United States, even 20 years down the road, nuclear energy will supply only a tiny fraction of India's power needs. “What does that mean for India, or more importantly, what does it mean for the rest of the world? Where will India get its energy from? It will get it from coal,” Puri said. And that means as many as 300 coal-fired power plants spewing a giant brown cloud over Asia.

But if solar gets here first, that could be different. “Maybe instead of 300 coal plants, it will only have to build 150. That might be an acceptable path.”

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