strong incentive

Taiwan also has a strong incentive to develop its solar power sector because there are few oil, coal and natural gas deposits on the island itself. Today, Taiwan gets about 98 percent of the energy it uses from imported sources, according to statistics from the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research, leaving the island at the mercy of geopolitics and the vicissitudes of the market.

Taiwan's public and private sectors have shifted attention to the photovoltaic field in light of the growing concerns about the environment and the predictable depletion of oil and other traditional energy resources. "We should leave oil before it leaves us," says Lan Chung-wen, a professor of chemical engineering at National Taiwan University (NTU), quoting the words of Fatih Birol, chief economist with the Paris-based International Energy Agency. Lan is also the director-general of the Photovoltaic Technology Center (PVTC) at the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), a government-funded research organization in Hsinchu.

To wean the solar power industry off public subsidies and seek wider applications for solar cell products, the government promotes research into techniques to reduce the cost of electricity generated by solar cells, the major factor behind solar electricity's low market share. That is why PVTC, which was established in 2006 as one of ITRI's five focus centers, has a mission to develop new photovoltaic technologies and pass them along to the private sector for commercial use. "Taiwanese tend to pay royalties for know-how purchased from foreign businesses, such as the payments made by local producers to dynamic random access memory [DRAM] designers. The local photovoltaic industry shouldn't follow in their steps," Lan says, explaining the rational behind the birth of the Hsinchu center, which employs some 120 staffers.

The center's major job is to improve the conversion efficiency of solar cells by making them more capable of absorbing sunlight. For example, researchers have used nanotechnology to build tiny columns on the surfaces of the cells. The result is a cell that reflects only a small amount of sunlight back into the sky, instead absorbing much of it and converting it into power.

Dye-sensitized solar cells are another next-generation technology being developed by research organizations around the world, including Taiwan's PVTC. A type of thin-film cell that employs organic dye to absorb sunlight, the dye-sensitized cell could be the star of the future because it does not require expensive raw materials and elaborate equipment to manufacture. Since the cells are bendable, they can also be attached to consumer products such as handbags to provide a power source for personal electronic devices. At present, solar cells in consumer products account for only 3 percent of all cells in use. The dye-sensitized cells are expected to show up in commercial applications by 2010.

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