This ain’t no strip mall: SoloPower abandons flat-plate strategy, embraces flexible CIGS PV module

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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.

One of Silicon Valley’s CIGS thin-film PV contingent that has been flying off the radar since the middle of 2009 is SoloPower. After I spoke with CTO Bulent Basol at the IEEE PVSC in early June, the company went through a change of command later that month. Lou DiNardo took over the CEO reins from contentious cofounder Houmayoun Talieh, with Basol, the other cofounder, also exiting. DiNardo’s tenure was never meant to be permanent, so in early February the San Jose-based company named a new chief exec /president, disk-drive industry veteran Tim Harris, with his interim predecessor taking on the new position of executive chairman.

Harris’s hiring is not the only announcement coming out of SoloPower: the firm also claims some new, impressive conversion efficiency numbers and damp-heat test results as well as plans to expand manufacturing, possibly with the help of a Department of Energy loan guarantee.

But the biggest news of all may be that the copper-indium-gallium-(di)selenide late-stage startup has abandoned its efforts to string its electroplated flexible stainless-steel solar cells into flat-plate PV panels and is proceeding directly to the production of flexible CIGS modules.

In a recent phone interview with the two SoloPower principals, DiNardo confirmed that SoloPower has decided to get out of the commodity business of classic form-factor glass modules, a market dominated by a combination of low-cost First Solar CdTe and Chinese and other crystalline-silicon entrants. After the ouster of the former management team, a strategic move was made to accelerate the development and commercialization of the more value-added flexible product, with the industrial and commercial metal rooftop sector as the primary target market, according to the exec chair.

DiNardo (shown at right) believes that “there is room in the thin-film PV space for at least one if not two more leaders, and with our technology and our approach to lightweight, flexible modules, we think we have a world-class company to build here.”

Several other CIGS concerns—including Ascent Solar, Global Solar, MiaSolé, Nanosolar, Odersun, and Solarion—are also attempting to grab the flex module brass ring, some hoping to do so in the near term (like Ascent and Global), others taking a longer time-frame approach. 

DiNardo (shown at right) is confident that his company will be the first to market with a low-cost, high-efficiency, certified 20-year-plus lifetime product. This is largely due to a concerted and apparently successful effort to solve the moisture seepage issue with a combination of new barrier materials, as well as improved top and backsheet layers and tweaks in the buffer and TCO layers that “ease the burden of the moisture barrier,” he explained. He credited 3M (which exhibited the SoloPower prototype flex module at its Solar Power International show booth in October), DuPont, and other suppliers for helping SoloPower achieve the results it has so far.

The recent efficiency and reliability test results do offer some credence to DiNardo’s assertions. SoloPower says it has seen small-area conversion efficiencies of 13.76%, with 12 cm2 and 178 cm2 cells hitting 13.4% and 11.7%, respectively, and more importantly, meter-long flexible module reaching 10.75% efficiencies. The cells and modules all came off the company’s 10MW roll-to-roll production line, not from lab-generated PV materials.

In damp-heat IEC testing, the modules did quite well after enduring more than the requisite 1000 hours at 85°C and 85% RH, showing minimal power degradation of <5 Pmax. DiNardo said that they are “still dialing in a couple of vanilla flavors” in the process, and once that’s finalized within the next 4-8 weeks, modules will be sent out for official UL testing.

Given the combination of extensive in-house testing and that certain materials are already approved, he expects a “relatively fast track” to ultimate approval, hopefully by July. They also will install modules on the company’s rooftop.

SoloPower plans to build a 60MW fab this year, equipped with next-generation tooling, at its current location, with the facility ramped for volume production in 2011. The stainless-steel web would be expanded to a meter in width and the length of the foil rolls increased, with various module sizes of 1.5, 3, or 6 meters eventually being produced. 

Eventually, the company envisions a nominal 250MW factory coming online, but for that to happen, a certain loan guarantee from a certain U.S. government agency would go a long way toward making that dream a reality. DiNardo revealed that SoloPower is well into the process of applying with DOE for a loan guarantee similar to the one recently granted to fellow CIGSophiles, Solyndra. He hopes to get before the credit review board in the spring and get the loan approved by the middle of the year.

Optimistic about the company’s “differentiated technology” yet realistic about the sometimes drawn-out application and approval process, he quipped that “there’s no handicapping the Department of Energy.”

In the meantime, DiNardo and CFO Ryan Benton are taking their dog-and-pony show on the road, trying to raise monies for another funding round, from existing investors (such as Crosslink Capital, where DiNardo came from before joining SoloPower) as well as new faces.

One tidbit shared by the former interim CEO puts the funds raised so far by SoloPower at “something less than $100 million,” despite reports of the company already having raised around $200 million with nothing much to show for it. Compare that more modest amount with the investments in other start-ups, which have raised several hundred million and may end up as what he calls the “roadkill in the CIGS space.”

The dynamic duo will tell potential investors of their vision of a company hitting cost margins in the “high 30s to low 40s,” and coming “out of the gate at $2 per watt,” with an expectation of pushing down that LCOE-based cost to $1.50, when the marketplace drops to that ASP range and economies of scale have been reached, according to DiNardo.

“We can compete at scale with healthy profits,” he added, citing a “clear line of sight approaching sub-dollar-a-watt” manufacturing costs.  He said SoloPower’s electroplating-centric manufacturing platform is “an inexpensive tool,” one that is superior in materials utilization/COGS and lower in capex and cost compared to evaporation, sputtering, or “any other CIGS deposition technology.”

New guy Hayes (pictured at left) said he will leverage his experience at HDD outfits like Komag and Seagate to help “maximize team productivity” at his new workplace. In the disk drive world, “it’s all about being able to ramp quickly, effectively maximize your capital, and to ramp in such a way that you’re doing product development at the same time.”

Although he’d like to see the serial-batch production process become more automated, he wants to maintain flexibility in the line and focus on optimizing the “efficiency of individual steps rather than spending a lot of time stringing steps together.” He also noted that with the projected larger capacity line, more process monitoring will be needed and “we will continue to learn all the time on where we can improve instrumentation.” 

Hayes has been impressed by the quality of the 120-strong SoloPower workforce, especially the technical team, where he sees “very good base process and development work.”

“This isn’t a strip mall in Fremont,” he noted. “This is a real facility, with world-class equipment. A significant portion of the team is from IBM Hitachi, and so that kind of approach to things--being very fundamentally sound and doing things right the first time—is a big asset.”

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