"Solar electricity is now a commercial business, something we couldn't say five years ago," says Roger G. Little. As a result, he expects his company, Spire Corp. of Bedford, Mass., to grow from its current sales of $4.2 million to $50 million by 1986.

Spire and Little are currently working on almost 30 research projects. But the company's future probably lies in solarcell production technology. Taking a cue from the semiconductor industry, Little has developed a series of semiautomated machines that can connect solar cells at a rate of 12 per minute. The result is solar modules, collections of individual solar cells with the potential to collect far more energy in a far smaller space than current cell technology allows. The upshot: cheaper solar energy, perhaps inexpensive enough to be competitive with traditional means of producing electricity.