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Simon Tsuo: Scientist turned energy pioneer

From James MacDonald
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(CNN) -- Dr. Simon Tsuo first saw the light in renewable energy 25 years ago.

The then-research scientist was working on infrared detectors for military use when he decided to switch his focus to something "more civilian."

"When I was a graduate student I worked on infrared detectors. And then I did my postgrad also on infrared detectors. I saw after working in military technology I wanted to do something more civilian, more useful so I decided to switch to solar energy because it is similar to infrared detectors," Tsuo recalls.

A move from the Stanford Research Institute in California to the Solar Energy Research Institute in Colorado was the start of an exciting journey from researcher to the chief executive of Taiwan's largest manufacturer of solar cells.

There are few things the modern world takes for granted more than electricity, even if large parts of the world are struggling to generate enough power to run a single light bulb.

Tsuo hopes that the global interest on alternative and renewable energy will change that.

Since founding Motech Solar eight years ago Tsuo estimates the solar electricity industry has grown by an average 40 percent to 50 percent a year . Still, he says the real growth has yet to start.

"It can be faster in the future because the solar electricity energy is a very, very small part of electricity generation," he says.

At least part of the success of making solar mainstream will be the ability of Motech and others to bring the costs down.

" ... as the cost gradually (for renewable energy) goes down then the application will widen because there are so many possibilities." - Simon Tsuo

Motech currently produces about 6 million semiconductor wafers a month to produce 18 million watts. Tsuo expects the cost of a module to halve from the current US$3.50 per watt in the next five years.

"I think as the cost gradually goes down then the application will widen because there are so many possibilities for renewable energy."

Tsuo points to Germany as the biggest potential market, followed by Japan and California in the United States.

Then there are remote rural areas, such as in western China, where he sees great potential.

"I think it's a very clean and quiet energy compared to the alternative. People who live in rural areas who don't have great connection have to use the diesel generators or dry batteries or sometimes wind turbines. Wind turbines are good but some areas don't have that much wind. So solar is a very good alternative for them."

Tsuo says he had trouble in the early days persuading people to invest in his start-up business. But finding money to invest in renewable energy ventures is no longer an issue, he says.

"The first challenge was to find people interested in investing. The second was too actually set up the factory from ground zero with no experience. And then as the factory grows bigger and bigger how to manage growth is also a challenge for me."

It is only in the past three to four years that the solar industry has become profitable. When Motech first started making solar sells in 1999 its oil company competitors like Shell Solar and Mobil Solar were not doing it for the money but the publicity.

"So the industry has changed a lot. People are beginning to realize that this is a profitable business that is going to grow."

For Tsuo the biggest difference between being a research scientist and a company CEO is the responsibility to his 800 employees and for the company to well.

For now the plan is to continue as a solar cell provider rather than manufacture panels. As well as investing in making the feedstock polysilicon, Motech has started making inverters to support its customers who make modules.

"We see ourselves as partners with our module manufacturing customers around the world. We think it is more economical to ship solar cells rather than ship modules."

Journalist Bina Brown contributed to this report.


Simon Tsuo: Remote rural areas offer widespread potential for renewable energy growth.

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