After four consecutive years of filling – and outgrowing – every major exposition venue in Southern California, the Solar Power International show is taking it on the road to the larger Lone Star confines of the Dallas Convention Center. Rich in wind farms, Texas is not the first, second, or tenth state that comes to mind when one thinks of the solar power industry in the US, though it does boast excellent irradiation, a growing base of companies and installations, and a climate-change denier as governor. Since the 2010 SPI event took place in Los Angeles, the industry barometer has become decidedly more unsettled. Despite the sector’s stormy weather, here’s what I’ve seen with my own eyes during roadtrips over the past few months: things are lively across the US solar PV value chain.
The deserts of southwestern Arizona include a whole lot of empty terrain, interrupted occasionally by one of a handful of small towns, both alive and ghostly, as well as patches of irrigated farmland and mineral excavation sites. The rugged, scrubby landscape stretches for miles on either side of Interstate 8, the main west-east artery in that part of the US. The scale of the vast expanse swallows up thousand-acre parcels like a rattlesnake gobbling up a baby field mouse. But something impressive and historic is rapidly taking shape on 2,400 acres of former agricultural lands and military proving grounds up the road a piece from the tiny burg of Dateland in Yuma County. Agua Caliente Solar Project, the largest utility-scale photovoltaic power plant currently in advanced construction, soon will be generating electricity from an area nearly three times the size of New York’s Central Park.
TSMC Solar’s YC Chao didn’t want to give the wrong impression about the company he runs — the wholly owned subsidiary of the mighty semiconductor foundry is, after all, a start-up. “But there are areas where we are not like a start-up,” he explained “I do not go out and raise money. And I do not brag about the future. We certainly have our own vision how the future is going to be and what we need to do in order to be successful, but we walk our talk, and we do not talk very much.” The company president did talk at length from Taiwan via a video teleconferencing link at TSMC’s North America headquarters recently, in advance of the unit’s regional coming-out party at Solar Power International 2011 in Dallas
Suniva’s 170MW solar cell fab may not have the most ideal process flow, but it is a classic example of how much manufacturing capacity can be squeezed out of available floor space. Analogous to cramming 10 pounds of a certain something into a 5-pound bag, in the case of the company’s facility, three production lines have been inserted into an area originally designed for two. By running four shifts around the clock seven days a week (as it currently is) and fully using the double-tracked printing capability of some equipment—effectively turning those three lines into five—the fab can churn out a run rate of ~100,000 high-efficiency, low-cost monocrystalline-silicon cells per day, while boasting yields in the mid-90s.
Despite the muddy swirl of controversy surrounding that certain “you know who” CIGS company, many of the “survivors” in the most up-and-coming sector of the thin-film PV community just keep going about their business, driving up efficiencies, pushing down costs, closing deals, ramping production, and shipping products. Two Silicon Valley-based outfits, Nanosolar and Stion, have recently announced National Renewable Energy Lab-certified record conversion efficiencies and are both actively ramping production to feed their pipeline of orders. Here’s the latest from two of those left standing.
Terrestrial solar power may be where the megawatt action is, but space-based photovoltaics provides its own intriguing kilowatt-scale technical challenges. In addition to the effects of extreme radiation on solar cells, one key aspect of using PV power in interplanetary space revolves around what the engineers and scientists call LILT, the acronym for “low intensity, low temperature” conditions. No mission has a more difficult LILT scenario than the engineering marvel known as Juno, which was launched from Cape Canaveral on Aug. 5 and is now about two months into its multiyear voyage to Jupiter. Equipped with the largest photovoltaic-panel array-wings of any planetary mission yet, the instrument-laden NASA probe will be the first spacecraft using PV power to venture to the outer planets of our solar system. Two of the Lockheed Martin engineers who played key roles in the design and construction of the array system and its integration into the spacecraft, as well as the head of Boeing’s Spectrolab unit, the group responsible for producing and laying out the strings of PV cells on the panels themselves, spoke with me recently about some of the unique aspects of the design, construction, and assembly of Juno’s solar array and its components.
When I drove up I-880 past the Solyndra buildings in Fremont earlier this week, it was the first time since the shutdown, bankruptcy filing, and subsequent public kerfuffle that I had been in the neighborhood. Stealing glances at the familiar facilities as I sped up the freeway, the nearly empty parking lots reminded me of the human toll and the plight of those thousand-odd employees who were summarily laid off without warning and without severance. But as I learned later that afternoon, many ex-Solyndrans have better prospects than they did a couple of weeks ago.
With its framework structure erect and the first walls attached, the shell of what will be one of the largest PV manufacturing plants in the US is quickly rising from the desert floor in Mesa, AZ, east of Phoenix. The freeway-close First Solar production center will join the company’s mothership factory complex in Perrysburg, OH, as a second domestic site once it comes online next year. During a visit to—and exciting Bobcat ride around—the project this week, I found out that construction activities are in full swing, as the accompanying photos attest.
As the stakes grow, B.J. “Billy” Stanbery knows how to keep his cards close to the vest. The chairman and cofounder of HelioVolt just saw the 10-year-old company’s new equity/lifeline investor, SK Group, push $50 million of chips into the CIGS thin-film PV venture’s pot—but he’s not willing to show his hand just yet. While thrilled to see a South Korean chaebol with its vast resources decide that “CIGS is the best horse to ride into the future” and that HelioVolt is the pony to run that track, he didn’t offer much in the way of detailed information about the race tactics and strategy. Stanbery, along with biz dev VP Iga Hallberg, spoke with me about the strategic investment and provided a few updates on recent progress made by the copper-indium-gallium-(di)selenide technology developer and panel manufacturer
Although some PV industry watchers would say the term “disruptive technology” does not belong in the same sentence with “crystalline silicon,” several start-up companies and a host of national labs and research groups in the US and elsewhere would beg to differ. In the most recent Department of Energy SunShot Initiative announcements, corporate and institutional participants pursuing the general topic area of thin crystalline silicon received millions in awards to explore various avenues of developing and manufacturing seriously skinny, often nanoscale wafers or cells out of the solar sector’s primary incumbent material. DOE won’t be cutting Ampulse one of those SunShot checks, but the venture-backed, national lab-connected start-up thinks that its technology, which facilitates the “on-the-cheap” fabrication of c-Si thin-film heteroepitaxial cells on flexible metal substrate “foils,” has a legitimate shot at upending the solar status quo.