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.
Although SVTC has been dabbling in photovoltaics for awhile with a few
customers, it really got serious about the PV space when it formed the SVTC Solar unit
late April. The process development foundry hired solar vet Kurt Laetz
to run the operation, leased 87,000 square feet of cleanroom, lab, and
office space in the Edenvale Redevelopment Project Area of San Jose
(now home to several PV concerns), and said it expected to be fully
operational by the end of 2008, with a goal of working with 25-30
companies of varying sizes within three years.
This week's news
the nascent PV technology development center in cahoots with two
important players as it moves closer to opening its doors: joining SVTC
Solar will be leading turnkey-line toolmaker Roth & Rau and one of
the fastest-growing solar-cell manufacturers, JA Solar. Not only will
the alliances provide silicon wafer cell pilot-line manufacturing
capability to the newly named Silicon Valley Photovoltaic Development
Center (SVTC's SVPVDC? That's a mouthful of alphabet soup) and a top
10-level customer and research partner, but it gives the new site
instant global credibility and reach with its key German and Chinese
SVTC Solar's Laetz likes how things are developing.
"The vision of this facility," Laetz said during a phone briefing,
"is that we will be creating an internationally recognized facility in
the solar industry where companies can do their development work. We
are going to take all those best practices [learned at SVTC] and put
them in the solar facility and offer these development services to the
"A key to our entrance into solar was the realization from talking
to many of the solar [cell and module] manufacturers that there were
broader resources that needed to be supplied, support resources for
development, and we realized that we needed to have a facility that was
more of a partnership among key service providers," he continued. "We
sought out and are teaming with equipment manufacturers, with Roth
& Rau being our premiere partner in that area. We're also looking
to form key partnerships with other companies and are having
conversations right now to bring a broad swath of development services
into this facility to service solar manufacturers."
Laetz said that the recently leased facility is "undergoing tenant
improvements"--including fitting out the cleanroom areas--with the
"equipment expected to be arriving in the second half of 2008." For the
time being, the PV-related work will continue to be done in the
company's main San Jose fab, with some efforts also taking place in its
ATDF facility in Austin. The company is hiring "the first few team
positions" and "anticipates having between 10 and 15 [dedicated]
employees by the end of the year, and about 60 when fully ramped."
Asked how much of its business SVTC expects the new PV unit to
account for, Scott Marquardt (the company's VP of sales, marketing, and
strategic biz dev) said, "we see solar coming to 20 to 25%," although
he offered the caveat that the cost of processing solar is about two
orders of magnitude less than the costs associated with the
semiconductor side of the business.
He also believes that most "customers will come and contract for
some percentage of available line and equipment time. A big difference
with the semiconductor business is that with the process steps for
making a solar cell, there's a fair amount of commonality....That does
provide some constraints, but I still think we're going to see alot of
variations as people look to reduce cost and increase efficiencies."
The development house is also "looking for [reliability and
testing] capability to be offered, but probably not by SVTC Solar, but
through an independent service provider located within the facility,
most likely a third party. We're setting aside the space [to provide
Laetz said Roth & Rau's 5-MW turnkey pilot line will be "the
heart of the silicon wafer services in the facility. It will allow us
to have baseline manufacturing processes, which is very important for
our customers, to be able and come in and make their modifications and
improvements to their processes and process steps, and have a baseline
equipment set to try out and measure those improvements on."
The 5-MW line represents "one complete set of Roth & Rau
equipment," according to the center's program manager. "If you were to
actually calculate the throughput, in manufacturing with their uptimes
it would actually be closer to a 10-MW line. But we're calling it a 5
MW pilot line, because in development you don't run as many wafers."
The 18-year-old German PECVD, plasma etch, and ion beam tool company
has been experiencing tremendous growth and success the past few years,
seeing its revenues increase nearly 79%, its consolidated net income
jump 124%, and its order backlog more than double to over 222 million
Euro in the first quarter of this year.
Within the past few months, the company was added to the Frankfurt
Stock Exchange's TecDAX index, closed a deal to buy systems and
software supplier AIS Automation Dresden, and joined forces with the
University of Neuchatel's Institute of Microtechnology in Switzerland
to conduct research on highly efficient silicon solar cells. Roth &
Rau is also benefiting from the opening of a new, expanded
manufacturing site in eastern Germany in late 2007 as well as the SLS
joint venture signed with automation systems supplier USK earlier this
Company CEO and founder Dietmar Roth said that although it has a
"very diversified customer base in Europe and Asia, and hopefully more
in the United States in the future (although they count BP Solar and
among their clients). One of our reasons that we did this deal
with SVTC is for us to [meet the] challenge to come into the US market
to demonstrate state-of-the-art technology in PV. We believe that this
is a very nice business model that SVTC has and the experience that
they have, and that was the second reason we agreed to invest here.
"What we will have at the end of the year will be a fully equipped
solar cell manufacturing line, starting with solar wafer and coming out
with finished cell. That technology is the latest state of the art that
we deliver. We believe that we can bring a lot of new ideas and new
innovations which are necessary to meet the targets for the future,"
including that all-important two-pronged goal--reducing cost and
increasing cell efficiencies.
As for monocrystalline silicon cell insurgents JA Solar
Laetz introduced the company as "the first customer of the new
facility," explaining the plan for the Chinese-based manufacturer to
"loan some development engineers" and utilize the fab. JA Solar
president/COO Kang Sun reviewed the company's steep upward trajectory
during the phone briefing, claiming it has been the "highest growth
solar company in the world, in terms of revenue," jumping from "$140,
$150 million a couple of years ago, to $380 million last year, and this
year could be $1.2 billion."
In terms of solar cells shipped, the exec with the made-to-order
last name said that JA Solar ranked number 21 in 2006, number 10 in
2007, and "this year, if we ship 340 MW, we'll be number 5, and if we
ship 385 MW, we'll be number 4." By the end of next year, Kang said the
company will add enough capacity at its two newest facilities to hit
the 1-GW nameplate mark.
"Our goal, like Roth & Rau, is to be cost leader in the
industry," he continued. "To do that, we need the technology.
Everything comes down to the technology. We have cost drivers, we have
profit drivers. Currently we have our own research center located in
China, but we don't see ourselves as just a Chinese company--we see
ourselves as a global company. So we leverage global resources. For
this reason, we are very pleased to team with SVTC."
He said JA plans to send several full-time people to the SVPVDC,
specialists in the areas of materials, equipment, device design, and
process. "Conversion efficiency is the key. Today, JA Solar holds the
world record, in terms of solar-cell manufacturing cost. Our
manufacturing cost is 28 cents per watt, while the industry overall
cost is about 35 or 36 cents per watt. SunPower
is 85 cents per watt,"
although he admitted that was not a fair comparison, because the other
company uses a different technology, and "Q-Cells is at about 55 cents
"However, bringing down costs is just one approach to be the cost
leader, another approach is creating increased profitiability. The
high-efficiency cell certainly gives us alot of leverage to be a
low-cost leader. Today, in our manufacturing environment, a 1% increase
in efficiency is equivalent to a 5% gross margin gain, so it's very
substantial to us."
As for the company's current efficiencies, "the number we give to
investors is an average of 16.5. In reality in our fabs, it's between
16.8 and 17. Our goal is at the end of the year our average will be
17%. Our goal is to increase efficiency 1% per year in the next 2
Since JA Solar's current technology has what he calls "certain
limitations" (about 19% efficiency potential), Sun knows that the
company has to "work with our equipment vendors, like Dr. Roth (a major
supplier to JA), to have more dramatic changes. Our research approach
in the US (at SVTC Solar) will be quite different. We are not lookng
for incremental increases, we are looking for more substantial movement
in the US research team."
At the end of the briefing, it was incumbent on this reporter to
ask one of the obvious questions: Does SVTC Solar plan to install a PV
panel array to help power its new development center?
"That is something we absolutely would like to do," said Marquardt.
"There's two open fields adjacent to the facility. They're owned by a
separate landlord, and we're just getting in touch with him. There's
also the possibility of putting them on the roof."