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.
Much of last week’s coverage of the Warren Buffett-branded acquisition of First Solar’s Topaz Solar Farm by Berkshire Hathaway-backed MidAmerican Energy Holdings overlooked the sage multigazillionaire’s numerous indirect investments into photovoltaics. Though known for several forays into wind power, his group also holds a 9.9% interest in Chinese electric car, energy storage, and PV manufacturer BYD, a 10.5% piece of German insurer/project owner and Munich RE; and 4.6% in Korean steelmaker Posco, which has emerged as a solar project EPC firm and investor.
As impressive as the exponential expansion of solar power has been over the past few years, it’s important to remember the last part of that preceding phrase: the industry, as a large-scale global concern, is still in its infancy. During his presentation on module reliability and performance characterization at the recent PV Power Plant USA conference in Phoenix, PV Evolution Labs cofounder/CEO Jenya Meydbray shared some telling factoids. Less than 5% of the total installed solar capacity has been deployed for more than 10 years old, and less than 18% has been generating power (or not) for more than five years. Given the sheer numbers of modules involved and wide range of quality assurance levels—and historical field data samples showing a third of 18-24-year old modules degrading at a guarantee-busting 1% or more per year—no wonder he expects to see a whole lot of warranty claims in the next five years.
If you’re not sure where Barry Broome stands on a particular issue, just give him a few minutes. The man can talk, and when he does, strong opinions leavened with humor often come pouring out of the mouth of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council’s president/CEO. Given his stocky build and tenacious style, it wouldn’t be a stretch to nickname him “Bulldog.” Though forcefully advocating solar power and its role in the current and future economic development of the Valley of the Sun, Bulldog Barry’s keynote address at this year’s PV Power Plants Conference USA and comments at a press briefing following his speech included several loud barks and growls directed at the solar community.
In Chinese culture, the color red signifies happiness, joy, and good fortune. Wedding dresses shimmer in crimson, and flush-with-cash gift envelopes often bear a distinctive scarlet tint. But there was no ruby-hued joy in the just-completed round of quarterly financial announcements from the leading Chinese solar companies, as sales revenues fell, margins evaporated, and inauspicious red ink flowed in Yangtze-like volumes. Comparisons of certain key indicators among the top 10 firms reveal a profitless sector largely reeling from plummeting PV module prices and urgent attempts to balance capacity with demand and rein in costs.
There’s more than one media outlet and many good writers reporting on and analyzing the photovoltaics sector with solid editorial content, something underscored by the sampling of the following five stories posted on the Web over the past few days. Sometimes, hand-crafted aggregation can be a sincere form of flattery. Enjoy the ride.
The solar PV space, like most industries, has many stories and factoids that are overlooked or underreported among the often cataract-like torrent of news and commentary. Still catching up after a brief hiatus, the latest edition of the blog zeroes in on some signals among the recent noise, such as SolarWorld’s upcoming temporary factory closure, Trina Solar’s boss on the record for better or worse, Q-Cells vs. Solar Frontier in a CIGS shipment match, and a comparison of two solar companies’ PV plants powering their own factories.
The term “gold rush” is often synonymous with get-rich quick schemes characterized by a fair share of shady or outright illegal shenanigans, or at least the phrase is used to indicate a lucrative opportunity for those with the acumen and wherewithal to cash in. Although long a cliché, the term still has a way of focusing attention and raising eyebrows. Given the clusterfrak of solar industry controversies over the past few months—from the Solyndra debacle to the internecine pissing match that might lead to a US-China “trade war”—and shall we say “inconsistent” mainstream media coverage of said sector, the New York Times page-one lead news feature on Nov. 12, with the website headline of “A Gold Rush of Subsidies in Clean Energy Search,” set off another peal of alarm bells this weekend. One of the companies targeted, er, spotlighted in the story, NRG, was in full-damage control mode before the weekend was over, issuing its own multipoint “fact sheet” rebuttal to the NYT piece. For the most part, it provides solid, detailed responses to specific passages and inferences in the NYT report. I thought it worth sharing—at least most of it—in this edition of the blog.
Recurring themes and odd juxtapositions permeated Solar Power International, with multiple examples of AC modules integrated with microinverters or other distributed electronics, “easier, lighter, cheaper” balance-of-system innovations, frameless thin-film panels, and booths of Chinese companies most attendees had never heard of. In the outside exhibit area, vanilla cupcakes were piled up in celebration of Hemlock Semiconductor’s corporate birthday. Wait a second: hemlock cupcakes? Halloween was indeed just around the corner for an industry that seems to embody the trick-or-treat duality of late, the cost or benefit depending on which part of the market stream one swims.
While BYD’s Solar Power International exhibit-hall booth might have been modest in size and the company’s reputation may not be as well-established as its Chinese PV industry counterparts, there are few enterprises that can match the scope of its vertically integrated and potentially synergistic business platform in the renewable and cleantech space. Building around what it calls “three green dreams”—solar power, energy storage, and electric vehicles (with some solid state lighting thrown in for good measure)—the Shenzhen-based, Berkshire Hathaway-backed, $7 billion company just opened its new North American HQ near downtown Los Angeles and signed a deal to provide EV shuttle buses and cars to rental giant Hertz. At SPI though, the emphasis was on BYD’s solar division, a group that has quietly built up more than a gigawatt in crystalline-silicon wafer and cell production capacity and 800MW of module manufacturing capability since 2008.
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.
Hollywood is both a physical location within L.A.’s city limits as well as a state of mind (or mindlessness, in some cases) and catch-all phrase for what we Los Angelenos call “the industry.” In the solar community, when we say “the industry,” we mean something altogether different, although sometimes the worlds of entertainment and photovoltaics do come into contact. SolarWorld, the company who pulled Larry “JR Ewing” Hagman out of Hollywood exile and turned him loose as a celebrity spokesman, will be making its branding mark Sunday, Sept. 18, on one of the entertainment crowd’s marquee events: the Primetime Emmy Awards. A 49.5KW (DC) PV power system equipped with 225 of the company’s 220W polycrystalline-silicon modules will provide a “solar awning” over the red carpet as the glitterati stroll into the show at the Nokia Theater in downtown L.A.
Racking and mounting may not be the sexiest parts of a photovoltaic installation, but the slickest high-performance modules would be all form and no function without the structural bones of the array to keep them in line with the sun. In the US, these balance-of-systems mainstays also turn out to be the hardware components with the largest percentage of domestic value creation among US installations in 2010, according to the recently released “US Solar Energy Trade Assessment,” produced by GTM Research for SEIA—a real “Made in the USA” story on the solarscape. Although a familiar face in Germany, mounting system firm Renusol is hoping to make an impact on the US BOS market.
Still smarting from the wounds of loan guarantee recipient Solyndra’s shutdown and imminent Chapter 11 filing, the US Department of Energy kept its eyes on the SunShot Initiative prize last week, announcing more than $145 million in awards to be spread across 69 projects run by companies, national and private labs, and universities. The efforts encompass a half-dozen categories, including big R, little d and little r, big D accelerants on the cell, module, and inverter technology, balance of system cost reduction (actually, cost reduction is a recurring theme among all categories), grid integration schemes, building integrated PV, and a chunk of change for IT-laden moves to cut nonhardware costs down significantly. Here’s a closer look at some of the players, numbers, and threads that emerge from the latest DOE innovation seed-corn distribution.
Imagine you left work one evening, excited and exhausted by a job where everything was gung-ho and thumbs-up, moving forward at a 24/7 clip, only to report to work the very next morning and be told the company is closing down, so clear out your desks, get your unemployment packet, and see ya later. You and your coworkers had seen no warning signs, no hint of trouble, and certainly had no inkling that a full and total shutdown was imminent. If you work(ed) for Solyndra, you don’t have to use your imagination to fill in this scenario—it is your new reality.
The data giveth and the data taketh away. In the case of a new study conducted by GTM Research for SEIA, the data giveth a surprising, seemingly counterintuitive view of the US solar industry: The United States was a net solar exporter by a far piece in 2010—including in trade with China—and nearly three-quarters of the direct value of solar systems installed here last year accrued to the US economy, to the tune of more than $4.4 billion. The report factors in the entire value chain—from raw materials to finished products to balance of systems and installation to permitting and other soft costs—and demonstrates that there is a lot more to the total market picture than where solar modules are manufactured and how much they cost. The research also provides a jumping-off point to check in on a commercial project developer/builder, Ra Power & Light, which offers a snapshot of current module pricing, in the first installment of a two-part blog.
A few hours’ drive south of Atlanta, Georgia—and thousands of miles from Ireland—the town of Dublin hosts another German solar company seeking to plow the green fields of the burgeoning US PV marketscape: Mage Solar. In addition to its North American HQ and new crystalline-silicon module line located in a former Rockwell Automation plant, the firm has set up an intriguing educational center called the Mage Solar Academy. Although the company’s brand may be part of the fledgling institute’s name, the effort goes far beyond any parochial corporate intent. By training new installers, potential solar entrepreneurs, and other interested parties in the boot-camp and PV101 basics as well as NABCEP certification essentials, the academy—as well as via collaborations with local technical community colleges and talks at regional town-hall meetings—may be the start of something critical to the market development and growth of photovoltaics in the southeast US. As I toured the Mage campus, several photo opps presented themselves, which I share in this graphically oriented blog.
One of the largest photovoltaic power plants in the world started officially sending electricity to the grid earlier this month—and hardly anyone seemed to notice. The commissioning of the 45MW (AC) Avenal Solar Generating Facility in rural Kings County, CA, was drowned out among the buzz of First Solar’s gigawatt-scale PR burst around the Agua Caliente, Topaz, Desert Sunlight, and Copper Mountain Solar II installations and SunPower’s imminent kickoff of construction on the California Valley Solar Ranch site. After all, what’s a mere 45MW compared to the nearly 1.8GW represented by those megaprojects? In Avenal’s case, not only has it joined the cast of the current top 10 largest operational PV plants, the site stands as what may be the biggest silicon thin-film-based solar generating station on the planet. A closer look at Avenal also provides an opportunity to examine two of the solar industry’s trickier metrics: AC:DC conversion ratios and kilowatt-hour output.
As attention focuses on Evergreen Solar’s bankruptcy filing and ongoing slow-motion train wreck, another story about a failed US-based solar manufacturing enterprise remained a smaller blip on the edge of the industry’s radar screen. German-based Solon has decided to shut down its crystalline-silicon module production line in Tucson, AZ, as part of company management taking a hard look at the cost effectiveness of its manufacturing and making a painful yet necessary restructuring in its business operations strategy to compete in the North American market. In Solon’s case though, the move from fighting a losing battle as a commodity module supplier to becoming a differentiated product supplier, conjoined with a healthy project development/power plant business, may allow the firm to remain competitive.
Anyone who’s driven around Phoenix on a hot August day knows the drill. Park your car in the shade or in a covered structure if you can, but prepare to suffer the consequences if you have to settle for a spot in an exposed black-asphalt lot. For those inclined to see solar power opportunities all around, here’s an application that seems an especially low-hanging piece of summer fruit: to blanket parking and other exposed areas with PV-integrated structures, providing shade and generating power in one package. Although a growing number of such installations have sprouted up, Strategic Solar Energy cofounders Tom Headley and Bob Boscamp along with architect Jack DeBartolo have come up with a fresh, aesthetically enhanced variation on the solar canopy concept—the PowerParasol—the first of which will be erected and interconnected by year’s end on the Arizona State University campus.
Our coverage of Veeco’s exit from the CIGS systems business has generated strong interest in the photovoltaic manufacturing community. Although I covered alot of ground in the original blog as did Solarbuzz’s Finlay Colville in his follow-on piece about the equipment sector, certain aspects of the developing story were left untold. For one, I was unable to get a formal response from CNSE and/or Sematech. Also missing from the first round of objective commentary was any input from one of the other equipment companies that ply their wares to the CIGS manufacturers. This postscript blog covers both of those gaps.
Veeco’s decision to bail out of the copper indium gallium (di)selenide thin-film PV systems business may not have been a total shocker, but the OEM’s move still caught many in the industry off guard. The transformation from “integrated equipment provider to the rapidly growing CIGS solar market” to “don’t let the door hit you on the way out of the market” seems to have accelerated over the past quarter.
Canadian Solar may have exceeded expectations with the recent upward revision of its second-quarter module shipment guidance by 40-50MW, but its accomplishment still doesn’t quite match the exploits of one of the Major League Baseball teams that the PV company sponsors, the San Francisco Giants, who surpassed even the most die-hard fans’ hopes when it won the World Series last year. Noting the landing of another corporate sponsorship with an even more storied MLB franchise, the New York Yankees, chairman/CEO Shawn Qu told me during an Intersolar North America interview that the possibility of a Giants-Yankees matchup in the championship would be a “win-win” from Canadian Solar’s point of view, especially if the series were to go a full seven games. But baseball wasn’t the only thing on our minds: we also discussed solar cell and module technology, the collaborative elements of his “virtual” vertical integration strategy, and regional and sector market development.
My plan for this year’s Intersolar North America was deceptively simple: to cut a trail across the photovoltaic R&D, production, and balance-of-systems value-chain terrain showcased at the event and sample its eclecticism. The pathway took me from big-idea early stagers to gigawatt-scale global players, across the realms of crystalline silicon, thin film, and concentrator PV material sets, from solder masters to microinverter disruptors to tracking system aspirants. Was the journey worth it? Absolutely, even if I didn’t turn up any megatrends or bombshell scoops. Sometimes though, it’s the small discoveries that resonate.
Ensconced on the south side of the Moscone Center’s North Hall was a group of 100 or so PV companies, an Intersolar North America beachhead in the ever-shrinking halls of Semicon West. Although the firms exhibiting in the expo enclave had an international pedigree, a strong contingent of US-based outfits could be found making their case on this remote portion of the show floor. One of those exhibitors, Helios Solar Works, is a relatively new contributor to the “Made in the USA” trend in photovoltaic manufacturing—bringing the renewables revolution to Milwaukee, a city better known for “beer and brats.”
Does thin film represent the last, best hope for the future of US-based PV manufacturing? Given the country’s large market share of polysilicon production, the growth in crystalline-silicon module making, and the emergence of a nascent concentrator PV sector, that might be an overstatement. But the thin stuff does make up a large chunk of current domestic production (plus the US is number-two globally in that category, behind Malaysia and its First Solar capacity), and a few gigawatts of CdTe, CIGS, and possibly silicon thin film are set to come online in the next few years. With this in mind, the 2nd North American PV Fab Managers Forum, presented by SEMI in conjunction with Intersolar North America, had a distinctly TFPV focus. Here’s a smattering of factoids, newsy bits, and other gleanings from the conference.
The 37th edition of the IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference shattered previous records for participation and presentations, with more than 1800 attendees from 40 different countries and over 1000 oral and poster papers—more information and networking opportunities than any person with half a life could possibly digest. In the final blog on the annual PV techs-travaganza and inadvertent celebration of the summer solstice, I wrap things up with some solar short takes from the voluminous program offerings and the small-but-mighty exhibit hall.
The photovoltaic community lost one of its “unsung heroes” this week, with the passing of Patrick “Pat” Lasswell. The industry veteran died June 28 in a Phoenix, AZ, hospice, of complications from “an anterior communicating artery aneurysm, which had burst and caused massive bleeding into his brain,” suffered four weeks earlier, according to his daughter, Elizabeth Lasswell. He was 65. Here’s a remembrance of the master engineer.
A persistent theme at this year’s IEEE PVSC—and frankly every such conference—was that solar photovoltaic technology exists in a material world. The discovery of new materials, the concoction of better versions of existing materials, the manipulation and processing of materials, and the deployment and measurement of finished, manufactured materials in modular form in a power system all underscore PV’s essential materiality. One young company’s disruptive approach to getting more out of the industry’s über-material—crystalline silicon—garnered a fair amount of attention at the conference.
As the technical elite of the photovoltaics research community shared their latest findings at the IEEE PVSC in Seattle last week, a commercial-scale symbol of the fruits of their labors was taking shape a few miles away. On top of the newly rebranded CenturyLink (ex-Qwest) Event Center nestled between the city’s football/soccer and baseball stadiums, a 787KW (DC) PV power system equipped with 3750 panels featuring Solyndra’s tubular CIGS technology is just weeks away from commissioning. During a lunch break at the conference, I visited the site, which will be the largest rooftop array in the state of Washington when it’s activated in mid-July.
The venue for Alta Devices’ first public presentation about its potentially game-changing single-crystal gallium arsenide thin-film PV could not be more appropriate. The first IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference took place in 1961, and this year’s 37th convocation marks the event’s 50-year anniversary. The Silicon Valley startup’s coming-out party actually transpired in three courses: an appetizing plenary keynote from company cofounder and Caltech professor Harry Atwater, the main course from Alta’s Brendan Kayes, and a rich dessert helping from cofounder and UC Berkeley prof Eli Yablonovitch about the concepts of intense internal and external fluorescence—a key to the “new” device physics behind the firm’s technology.
Four days, five announcements, and more than $2.66 billion later, it’s time to catch one’s breath and reflect on the recent flurry of US Department of Energy conditional loan guarantee awards. As the program approaches its sell-by date of Sept. 30, with the future of the amply-distributed Section 1703 plan in doubt, the latest winners have one thing in common—they all play for Team Solar.
I first heard about Applied Materials’ exit from its SunFab amorphous-silicon turnkey-line business from Xunming Deng, head of Xunlight, whose Toledo, OH-area company I was visiting that July day. That a silicon thin-film guy delivered the news (and one running an outfit having its own “issues,” to boot) made the moment memorable and poignant. The following evening, when I had time to reflect and some liquid solace in my system, I realized that not only did I have a journalistic response to AMAT’s expensive failed endeavor—it was a HUGE story—but I had an emotional reaction as well: it felt like a gut-punch from a company I’d been covering for 20-plus years, which made me sad, disappointed, and yes, angry. Nearly a year later, recent announcements by AMAT thin-film customers T-Solar, Masdar PV, and Best Solar, companies actually manufacturing and deploying those almost six-meter-square modules, have compelled a fresh look at a technology and toolset that I’d given up for comatose, but is apparently conscious.
The intersection of Southern California Edison’s efforts to come up with smarter electrical distribution circuit technologies and its ongoing neighborhood commercial-rooftop solar power push could be seen symbolically in the guts of an open Satcon inverter box at the utility’s testing labs in Pomona, an eastern suburb of Los Angeles. The inverter is one of twenty-some units of various makes, types, and sizes being run through their paces with grid-simulation gear, addressing low-voltage ride-through, fault current, transient overvoltages, and other challenges that must be dealt with in order for inverters to become more than just passive components and help regulate voltage on the future, more renewably powered grid. Satcon is also the brand of choice so far for SCE’s deployment of small utility-scale, distributed PV generators mostly on top of warehouses in the Inland Empire of Southern California.
Although many have championed the potential transferability of production technologies developed and refined in semiconductor chipmaking to photovoltaic manufacturing, the two may have less in common than originally thought. To be sure, there are many lessons to be learned by the PV crowd from their uptown second cousins—they are both semiconductor-type processes, after all—yet most of the integrated circuiteers expertise doesn’t easily segue from chip fab to cell line. But one clutch of core competencies may have a legit shot at making the move as solar manufacturing goes gigawatt scale: process control and yield management. Enter KLA-Tencor’s FabVision Solar, a high-speed data-collection and analysis platform with roots in the company’s years of experience in the bare-wafer and IC sectors. It provides cell producers with a way to improve their understanding and control of their own processes and the defectivity that lurks therein, and thus increase their yields and factory productivity.
The high level of automation becomes quickly apparent when you walk through Astronergy’s tandem-junction production factory floor. Train-like AGVs run along a central chase area and big-armed material-handling robots glide back and forth, slinging the hefty, glass panels in and out of the cassette carriers and various process tools with little or no human intervention on most of the line. The layout is a serial-batch stocker configuration not unlike that seen in modern semiconductor and flat-panel display fabs. “The systems are all built around the stocker, so they’re pretty flexible. If an individual tool is down, the rest of the process can operate,” CEO Liyou Yang explained.
Liyou Yang started in the thin-film game in 1985 with BP Solar, where he eventually ran the company’s amorphous-silicon research efforts. “Once you get into it,” he smiled, “you get hooked.” During the course of our conversation at Astronergy’s headquarters in Hangzhou, the Rutgers-educated president/CEO would often reference his time at the old company, using his early experiences as reminders of just how far the technology and the solar industry in general have come since those pioneering days in the 1980s and ‘90s. Now running one of China’s fast-growing photovoltaics enterprises, Yang and his team have aggressive plans to bring Astronergy to gigawatt production scale and beyond over the next few years.
Siliken has by no means given up on the US solar market, but it has certainly given up on manufacturing its modules in the USA. After ramping a small panel factory in Otay Mesa in south San Diego County to 30MW and staffing it with 130 employees as of late September 2010, the subsidiary of the vertically integrated Spanish PV company reassessed its situation and quickly decided to make a cost-saving short-distance move across the border to maquiladora-friendly Tijuana—signing a lease in February and rolling its first multicrystalline products off the new, soon-to-be 60MW Mexican production line in April. While the economics of the relocation may make sense in a time of shrinking module ASPs, when I visited Siliken then-expanding San Diego facility last May, the company was touting its long-term commitment to the city. Why the firm changed course and the quiet way in which it did so provide a cautionary solar tale and a lesson in marketing—or the lack of it.
When I first heard that Sulfurcell was ditching the element embedded in its name in its CIGS thin-film PV process and going to a selenium-based approach, I wondered how long it would take the Berlin-based firm to change its outmoded brand. Although it took awhile for the transformation to happen—and the 10-year-old company does still make some of its modules using the less-efficient sulfurized Gen-1 process—rebranding has finally taken place: say goodbye to Sulfurcell, hello Soltecture.
(Updated) While a 50MW PV module line may seem like a drop in the capacity bucket of a firm with some 2GW of production capability, the importance of Suntech’s Goodyear, AZ, goes beyond the modest percentage of the enterprise-wide nameplate it represents. In addition to being the company’s first major facility outside of China, the site will be a prime example of the concept of distributed manufacturing—the idea of making panels close to where they will be deployed—when the US plant starts shipping its products 30 miles (~50km) west to the Mesquite Solar 1 project for installation in the initial 150MW of the utility-scale solar power farm. For the parent company, the Goodyear plant also will be a testbed of sorts, since it features a higher level of automation than the more manually oriented modcos operating back on the company’s Middle Kingdom campuses.
The first Solar Short Takes blog of the spring finds SoloPower moving the Oregon site of its planned factory from Wilsonville to north Portland, fellow CIGS manufacturer Solibro increasing its production output, REC Solar banking on big business in the Northeast US and likely adding thin film to its portfolio soon, First Solar still in the running for more DOE loan guarantees and Cogentrix copping one for CPV but other projects seeking the federal incentive now in doubt, ECD Uni-Solar singing the blues, and Canadian Solar returning as a good-luck-charm sponsor for the reigning World Series champs.