Concentration acceleration: Soitec’s San Diego factory deal is latest in flurry of CPV advances

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Tom Cheyney
Tom Cheyney
Tom Cheyney, former senior editor of PV-Tech and Photovoltaics International, is now chief curator of SolarCurator.com and director of Impress Labs’ solar practice.

Among the sometimes troubling and downright negative news in the solar space of late, the narrative of one company and the emerging sector it represents has been moving in a decidedly more upward and positive arc. Soitec, the French firm which entered the concentrating photovoltaics area via its acquisition of Concentrix two years ago, has been on a roll for most of 2011, with its momentum accelerating the past couple of months. The closing of the deal to build a new factory in San Diego (and ceremony celebrating the news) combined with the California Public Utilities Commission approval of the power purchase agreement for a 150MW project to which Soitec will supply the CPV modules/systems are the latest examples of the firm’s recent string of successes.     

The company announced its plans to build a factory in San Diego in March, but had been cagey about releasing any details about the precise location until this week. Soitec is taking over a 176,000-sq-ft facility in the Rancho Bernardo area, formerly used by Sony Electronics (and not far from semiconductor lithography laser-tool maker Cymer), which will be renovated by global megacontractor M+W Group and converted into a 200MW manufacturing and assembly plant.

The building will also contain what’s being called a “fab within a fab,” an operation run by the joint venture called Reflexite Soitec Optical Technology that brings together the optical components firm and Soitec’s combined expertise to develop and manufacture the injection-molded silicone-on-glass Fresnel lens plates for the CPV systems.

The first 100MW of production capacity is scheduled to come online by Q4 2012; depending on market demand, the plant could eventually be expanded to 400MW. Soitec said the investment is in the neighborhood of $150 million and that hundreds of jobs will be created, once the site is up and running at full tilt.

The appetite for those hundreds of megawatts of future production was further whetted this week, thanks to CPUC’s approval of SDG&E’s PPA with the principals of the Tenaska-owned Imperial Valley Solar Energy Center West, an up-to-150MW project to be built with Soitec’s CPV gear near El Centro, a couple hours’ drive east of San Diego. Combined with the CPUC-approved PPAs held by Soitec directly for 155MW of other projects in Southern California, the pipeline looks quite robust.

The amount of frequent-flyer kilometers racked up by directeur général André Jacques Auberton-Hervé and his merry band continues to rise, since the company recently made a big splash at the COP17 UN climate change conference in South Africa.

Not only did Soitec build and commission a 500KW demonstration system outside Durban (with a ceremony keynoted by the host nation’s president, Jacob Zuma), the CPV outfit garnered one of the 53 initial “preferred bids” from the country’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme, of which 20 bids representing 632MW out of more than 1400MW went to solar developers.

The project will consist of a 50MWp power plant to be built along with partner and EPC lead Schneider Electric in Touwsrivier, Western Cape, South Africa next to the Aquila Private Game Reserve, where the solar company has already deployed a pilot plant. The South African authorities are serious about adding gigawatts of renewables to their energy-starved grid, and Soitec has been patiently and steadily working toward the day when the government policies start to become more concrete.   

Not only has Soitec gained a foothold in the emerging South African market, but the company is one of the rare non-domestic birds that have managed to take flight in the Chinese market. The firm is shipping 3MW of CPV systems for an installation to be built in the desert city of Hami in Xinjiang province by Chinese developer Focusic New Energy.  

It also has launched something for the decidedly non-megawatts-scale side of the market, a self-contained ~2KW mini-tracking system called Plug&Sun (with battery storage option) targeted at off-grid, remote applications.

Concentrator arrays are notoriously large—Soitec’s own latest greatest Gen 5 28KW beastie has 12 large modules encompassing about 100 sq meters of glass on top of a utility-scale tracker (which pales in comparison to Amonix’s 70KW-plus über-PV waffle on a stick)—so the relatively modest scale of Lil’ Plug is unusual and innovative.  

The company also began what it’s calling the “Sunidarity” initiative, where it plans to donate some of those newly minted micro-CPV units to development aid organizations working in the poorer, energy-starved precincts of the planet.  

While all the recent flurry of activity has kept l’équipe Soitec upbeat though jet-lagged, the several megawatts of systems that are already operating in the field have been performing quite well. Clark Crawford, VP of the North American unit, shared some data at the recent PV Power Plants-USA conference.

He showed performance stats from the 1MW site activated earlier this year in Cuesta, located in the high insolation of the New Mexico mountains.  For a 10-day period in mid- to late September, the AC power generated matched or exceeded the rated nameplate capacity, often by as much as 10-15%.  

Crawford noted that of the other dozen-plus installations running at various locations around the globe, the systems have been operating at better than 98% availability with no visible performance degradation for more than three years in some cases, and that even with moderate DNIs of 400W/m2, system efficiencies remained high.

The company VP also mentioned a customization feature meant to help prevent potential soil erosion caused by single drip lines of rainwater coming off the tracker-mounted modules. A clever rotating “rain dance” feature on the Soitec systems at Cuesta (for the little rain that does fall there), slowly spins the modules around and “distributes rainwater like a lawn sprinkler.”  

Although Soitec seems to be achieving milestones more frequently than most of its CPV colleagues, some of those concentrator cousins have been showing increasing signs of bankability and deployment traction as well.

Amonix also benefited from the most recent round of CPUC PPA approvals, seeing four SoCal Edison-aligned projects totaling 28.5MW (ranging from 4.7MW to 14MW) move closer to construction. The company has a 5MW system now operating in Hatch, NM, and several sites under construction in Arizona,  and will also see the commissioning of the 30MW Alamosa, CO, power plant take place within the next few months.

GreenVolts (which had been given up for dead but has re-emerged with new funding and completely revamped technology) and SolFocus each have 1MW systems online and generating power as part of the 5MW multitechnology PV power plant on the Arizona Western College campus in Yuma. Skyline Solar, Morgan Solar, Semprius, Isofoton, Energy Innovations, and Heliotrop have also been among CPV value chainers making progress in recent months.

Crawford put the total amount of CPV power plants, either in operation, construction, or advanced development with a PPA or feed-in tariff in place, at 483MW(AC) worldwide (which I’m not sure includes the latest additions from South Africa). Given that a growing percentage of that figure is actually being built or will start to be in the near future, there are reasons to be bullish about Soitec and the rest of the concentrator crowd’s prospects.

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