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Under an Indian sun

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

A laborer checks the solar panel of a street light at a newly constructed solar housing complex in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, July 8, 2008. Blank DVD-maker Moser Baer India is venturing into thin-film solar energy panels in hopes that India will grow into one of the world's largest markets for solar power. (Parth Sanyal/Reuters)

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.