Continuing its efforts in renewable energy projects, a unit of Royal Dutch/Shell Group formed a joint venture with Akzo Nobel, a chemical and pharmaceutical company based in the Netherlands, to pilot a new low-cost process to mass produce flexible solar cell panels.

Separately, the large oil company also announced last week an unconventional geothermal project in El Salvador that would produce power by tapping heat from “hot rocks” beneath the surface of the earth.

Both projects are part of Shell’s effort to apply technology to produce clean renewable sources of energy, the company said. The company announced earlier this year investment plans of $500 million to $1 billion for development of new energy businesses including solar, wind, geothermal and hydrogen.

The joint venture with Akzo will pilot methods of cutting production costs of solar panels. It will explore a production method that applies continuously a special thin ‘solar cell coating’ to flexible foil materials. The conventional solar panel manufacturing process is very labor intensive and uses expensive materials like silicon, glass and metals, Shell said.

“We believe that solar power is going to be one of the fastest-growing primary sources of energy,” said Philippe de Renzy Martin, Shell Solar’s chief operating officer. “The market for solar power is forecast to grow at 16 – 25% per year.”

Shell said the key is producing the flexible solar panels with faster and cheaper production methods in order to stimulate a broader market including roofing and wall materials and other applications.

The renewable energy project in El Salvador is Shell’s first geothermal project. The project will form a “hot fractured rock” reservoir by creating an extensive network of cracks or fractures around an existing hot but non-productive well. A second well will be drilled into the fracture network. Water circulated through the fractures via the wells will pick up heat and be converted to steam. The steam will be used to produce electricity.

The concept involves prospecting for rocks at more than 200C located about 5 km below the surface.

Conventional geothermal power is created when naturally occurring steam is used. This technology exploits the presence of heat trapped in rocks and creates steam to produce electricity. The so-called hot rocks are abundant, Shell says. This unconventional technology could develop into a major source of energy, said John Darley, director of technology for Shell’s Global Exploration.

Shell stressed that the technology is very costly now but with further development and efficient project management the costs could be decreased to be closer to those found in the oil and gas industry.