Before Solyndra’s trials, tribulations, and triumphs put that company in the media and industry crosshairs in recent months, the company that received the lion’s share of bête noire/tech-innovator darling attention among the emergent thin-film PV crowd was Nanosolar. Former boss Martin Roscheisen had a way of stirring the publicity pot, winding up people with his outspoken, controversial, and sometimes premature pronouncements on the inherent disruptive superiority of his company’s technology and gameplan, culminating in a prodigious outpouring of news in September 2009.
Since the CIGS firm dumped the cofounder and brought in ex-semiconductor guy Geoff Tate as CEO in March, the company has kept a low profile. Other than some coverage of Gov. Arnold “Solar Photo Opp” Schwarzenegger’s visit to Nanosolar HQ in San Jose and a blurb about the “public debut” of its utility panel at the Beck booth at Intersolar Europe (a panel I saw last September at the EU PVSEC show in Hamburg), there has not been any news from the outfit that uses a nanoink print-coating process to make its copper-indium-gallium (di)selenide cells on flexible foil.
Time to take the wraps off: I visited Nanosolar’s facility in the Edenvale Tech Park in south San Jose a few weeks ago, talked with some of the executive team, walked the factory floor, and learned that the company has a new operative word—focus, on ramping production to volume and delivering product to their key customers. Here’s the first part of my exclusive report.
“Since the executive change, we have been refocusing, evolving from an R&D operation to a production operation,” explained Brian Stone, VP of sales and product management. “We went into volume production in mid-March, and since then we’ve made terrific progress in entering manufacturing, shipping to customers, building our first power plants, and bringing in senior management that has experience in volume production.”
When asked just how far the company has come in terms of run-rate and volumes, he would not go into specifics, noting that “there’s no sense in our mind at this point to tell the rest of the industry, the competition, where we are.”
During my visit, this navigation between generalities and specifics was a recurring theme, though fortunately not a dominant one. Stone carefully worded his replies without spilling any proprietary beans, and occasionally requested that I turn off my trusty analog Sony cassette-corder and keep certain parts of the conversation off the record.
Stone did, however, put some rumors and speculation to rest. For starters, he confirmed that that the company’s long-awaited activation of its initial 1MW power plant has indeed taken place.
“We shipped our first megawatt to the Luckenwalde landfill project (1.1MW [DC] actually, shown above, planted outside Berlin), and that was commissioned at the end of June. This is a project that we built in partnership with Beck Energy and their system energy integration arm, Blitzstrom. That’s our first megawatt commissioned, installed, and operating in eastern Germany.”
“We have several more megawatt-size projects that will be shipping this year to our other strategic customers, in Germany, France, and the United States,” he continued. “2010 is very much focused on meeting commitments we’ve made to our strategic partners, including Beck, EDF Energies Nouvelles, and juwi solar, primarily in their home countries.”
The company has also been busy hiring throughout the organization, starting with the recruitment of Tate. “We looked for people with a track record of success, who had experience working in larger enterprises, and also to increase our solar DNA,” the new CEO told me.
Noting Nanosolar’s energetic preparation for rapid growth, Tate said that “CIGS alone is not enough: the winners won’t be the best technology, but those with the best organizations,” citing Intel and other semiconductor companies as examples of those who’ve combined “innovation with operational and manufacturing excellence.”
Over the past few months, Nanosolar has brought several top-tier execs onboard, all of whom bring years of mission-critical, hands-on experience to bear: Eugenia Corrales, executive VP of operations and engineering (Tate called her position “the biggest executive role in the company after CEO”); Ali Zamanpour, VP of quality and reliability; and Becky Baybrook, VP of human resources.
A growing retinue of director- and middle management-level people in various operations, product management, product design, production control, field engineering, sales, and marketing roles have also joined the team.
I asked Stone (shown at right), who’s been with the company since December 2008, whether there had been any changes in the process or module design between September 2009, when the flurry of major news hit the wires, and March 2010, when production actually started.
“Obviously, to launch in September and start volume production in March, we changed a few things,” he smiled. “Suffice it to say, it took six months to enter volume production and now we’re there, we’re 100% focused on meeting our customer commitments, overdelivering as opposed to underdelivering. “
The company has “really close relationships with our strategic partners. There are quarterly meetings…they’re deep on technology, on product requirements, very closely aligned in terms of power plant planning and where we’re putting our modules.”
“We’ve got incredible customers, they’ve been very patient, they’re all working very hard to equity finance projects with our panels this year, given that bankability would be a challenge,” he noted.
Ah yes, the “b” word, that singularly potent perceived determinant of success or failure, the conditio sine qua non of all PV companies and projects for now and forever after, amen.
“We want to be very intelligent about bankability in developing a track record in the field and putting together the right set of data,” explained Stone. “That’s really what measures our production right now: building panels for projects that have been identified that can help build the case for an operating history and bankability in 2011. “
A number of test sites, typically 2-3KW in size, have been installed by customers and third parties, in a variety of European and North American locations. “We want to cover all the key geographies and key customers,” he said.
Nanosolar’s modules are being compared side by side with other kinds of PV in field tests in certain locations. The ZSW and Fraunhofer folks have been running extensive reliability studies on the edge seals and encapsulants used, and are also engaged in “very involved” cell-level degradation studies .
Black and Veatch just completed a report, where “they visited both our factories and looked at all of our accelerated test data, all of our IEC and UL studies, and published a 50-page, 25-year reliability study on panel degradation, which we then provide to our customers and to our project financiers,” according to Stone.
He then read from his executive summary of the document. “The objective of the study was to independently assess the reliability and manufacturing quality of a Nanosolar Utility Panel. Black and Veatch reviewed the durability and reliability testing data for the panel and found strong evidence that supports a 25-year lifetime expectation….comparable to other industry-leading thin-film module manufacturers. Black and Veatch views the current panel design and component selection to be appropriate for a 25-year operating lifetime.”
“They estimated a range well within our module warranty, based on panel design, accelerated lifetime data, CIGS benchmarks and track record, and outdoor testing results—this was based on linear annual system degradation,” he added.
The plan is to “combine all the studies into a bankability package for 2011 projects,” according to the VP. There’s a critical need to develop “a track record of third-party studies, cell and panel, and operating field data that mitigates risk and convinces the bank and their technical advisers that this is a product with a 25-year reliability that will meet its warranties and specifications.”
Stone said the company is shipping 8-9% efficient, 160-170W panels right now, in line with the existing IEC and UL certifications, but the median efficiencies of the line are more like 9 to 9-1/2%, with a new champion cell roll coming off the line a few weeks ago reaching 12%--what he called “a nice surprise.”
“We expect to ship 180-200W modules by the end of the year,” he said, which will be examined by TUV with visual inspections, hot-spot and reverse-current tests, and the like. The company plans to “resubmit 10-11% efficient modules to the IEC process in the fall,” with approval expected in time to start shipments of those newer-generation panels in 2011.
The San Jose cell-making factory is running two shifts, six, sometimes seven days a week. The facility floor was jam-packed with equipment and bustling with activity during my visit, as both development and production Web rolls moved between and ran through the front-end R2R CIGS processing tools and into the back-end sequence of screen-printing, sorting, testing, and packaging steps.
Click here to go to the second part of the Nanosolar exclusive, where the blog looks at the company’s current production status and plans for the future, talks with new ops and manufacturing maven Eugenia Corrales, and offers a first-hand look at the unique thin-film cell fabrication line.
TOP AND BOTTOM PHOTOS BY TOM CHEYNEY; REST OF PHOTOS COURTESY OF NANOSOLAR