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.
A tired but happy PV-Tech/Photovoltaics International staff team made its way back to London ground after last week’s Intersolar Europe show. All in all, the event was hugely successful and called some industry naysayers to reason as to the PV sector’s viability in the wake of various market developments.
The UK solar industry’s worst fears have today been realised as Government ploughs ahead with its proposed feed-in tariff cuts. Paying absolutely no attention to industry’s kicking and screaming, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has kept to its original plan and imposed ridiculously reduced rates of as little as 8.5p per kilowatt hour.
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.
As the Photovoltaics International/PV-Tech team readies itself for another foray into the world of Intersolar Europe, we thought it would be a good idea to let our fellow attendees of this most prestigious of PV exhibitions know what’s in store next week. This year, we have increased our presence in the Messe München with two booths, a distribution point for our publications as well as a tabletop at the Conference. If you’re looking for information on our news coverage on-site, our editorial plans for future publications of Photovoltaics International, or just looking for an excuse to get off your feet and leaf through one of our Lite publications, drop by one of our booths.
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.
Guest blogger Glenn Harris of SunCentric believes that the goals of the ongoing California Solar Initiative program will not be achieved based on a close reading of the latest data. He says that based on his group’s analysis, “we see no meaningful signs of acceleration that would allow us to project that the program can meet its requirement.”
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.