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Martin Roscheisen

Forgive the exclamation point. But this could be one of the greatest Silicon Valley stories this year.

Martin Roscheisen, the chief executive of Nanosolar, emailed us Monday to tell us he has finally done it. He has succeeded in taking far-out nanotechnology and applying it to solar cells in a way that promises to work commercially.

This is significant because all solar cells until now have been made from clunky, crystalline silicon. That’s why you get these big old thick solar panels that some think are an eyesore. More importantly though, they have remained expensive, which is why you need states to subsidize solar projects. And lately, they’ve been in short supply, driving up costs even more. Martin’s company, Nanosolar, has developed solar cells so thin you can paint them onto a piece of foil (click on video below). It uses a copper alloy, called CIGS (Copper Indium Gallium Diselenide). The resulting cells are efficient as traditional silicon cells, but can be manufactured at one-fifth the cost.

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Printed solar cells (CNN)

In short, he’s promising a revolution of sorts, just when we need one. If all goes well, it will make solar a more economical alternative energy source, and will help save the environment without costing us and arm and a leg. True, the proof will be in the pudding, and we’ll first see the cells emerge from the factory next year. But his announcements, scheduled announced tomorrow (Wednesday), are promising:

First, after a four-year race to get a working product out, he’s now building the world’s largest factory for making solar cells right here in the Bay Area — to be finished this year.

Second, to help, he has raised $75 million more in venture capital.

We’ve been on vacation, and so we handed the story to our environmental reporter, Paul Rogers. Here is the story, to be published in tomorrow’s Mercury News.

We met Roscheisen two summers ago, when he was putting his team together, and had started a race against other players doing similar things, including Konarka on the East Coast. We haven’t heard much from those players.

Roscheisen, 37, was an early dot-com pioneer, having sold Internet company eGroups to Yahoo for $432 million in 2000 during what he says was ”my other life.” (That’s when he worked with the brother of Google co-founder Larry Page; indeed, Larry and Sergey have both invested in Nanosolar).

As he told us the story a couple of years ago, he was kicking around for his next business idea, and found most software and Internet technologies were well covered by other companies. But he noticed how much he was paying for inefficient heating bills and at the gas pump to fill up the guzzling Mercedes-Benz G500 he bought from Sequoia venture capitalist Michael Moritz. Traveling the world, and inquiring about how to develop better energy sources, he fell upon the idea for Nanosolar.

For Roscheisen, the change of industries is a family tradition. His great great grandfather founded the Germany’s first regional electricity utility, still powering Bavaria today — but only after he first built a construction company.

Within the next two to six weeks, Nanosolar will select either San Jose, Santa Clara or San Francisco for the facility — which will churn out 430 megawatts a year of solar cells — almost tripling the entire wattage produced elsewhere in the U.S.!

The Merc piece doesn’t mention much about the funding, so here it is: Beside existing investors Mohr Davidow Ventures, Benchmark Capital, Onpoint and Mitsui, the number of new investors is large:

–SAC Capital and GLG Partners, two world-class investment funds with substantial PV industry investment experience;
–Swiss Re, the insurance sector leader of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index;
–Grazia Equity, the original backer of Conergy AG, the world’s largest PV system integrator;
–Christian Reitberger, the original backer of Q-Cells, the world’s largest independent silicon cell PV manufacturer;
— Capricorn Management, the investment arm of Jeff Skoll, known for its support of clean energy causes;
–the investment arms of SAP founders Klaus Tschira and Dietmar Hopp, and
–Beck, a leading PV power plant system integrator.