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18 Jul 2014

CIGS cell efficiency of 15% targeted at Solar Frontier’s ‘blueprint’ module factory

Work continues apace on the new factory that will serve as a “blueprint” for the future plans of Japanese thin-film module manufacturer Solar Frontier, with the company confirming to PV Tech that it will target a cell efficiency of 15% on its production lines.

The company posted an update complete with photographs to its website earlier this month, from the north-eastern Tohoku region of Japan where the company is building a module production facility with a nameplate capacity of 150MW. Construction of the facility was announced late last year and began in March. Photographs provided by Solar Frontier show a traditional ceremony held to pray for health and safety at the site, the laying of foundations and also shows that construction began despite heavy snow and ice in the region. 

According to Solar Frontier, owing to necessary earthquake-resistant construction techniques, known as 'taishin' in Japanese, foundations included 90 columns of reinforced concrete embedded deep enough into the ground to reach the underlying bedrock. The heavy steel framework of the building's shell has also been erected to its full height, nine metres. The walls and roof of the building will be added next, before manufacturing equipment begins to arrive.

Speaking to PV Tech in June at the Intersolar Europe show in Munich, Solar Frontier senior vice president Atsuhiko Hirano said that demand for the company’s modules in Japan was strong enough that Solar Frontier found it difficult to service its home country while also delivering in non-Japanese markets.  

Hirano said: “We are busy in Japan, we continue to have a lot of focus outside of Japan as well, but because of the very strong demand in Japan, we are having difficulty in allocating our product to the non-Japanese market.”

Hirano went on to say that in the past year, around 90% of Solar Frontier’s sales went to the Japanese market, with an additional significant backlog of orders. 

The new factory will not only serve to meet existing demand for modules, but, the company claims, it will also serve as a “blueprint for future production facilities”. The main idea is that by building a relatively small facility such as the 150MW Tohoku plant the company will gain knowledge and experience of building facilities as geographically close to the markets it is intended to serve as possible. 

Solar Frontier’s chief technology officer Satoru Kuriyagawa also told PV Tech that the design and construction of the facility is modular, meaning that factories built in future from the same blueprint could be scaled appropriately to be larger or smaller than the 150MW Tohoku plant, depending on what is deemed necessary to serve the particular market of each region where a factory is located. This is seen to be increasingly important as the company has recently made clear its intent to expand into new markets including the UK, where it will develop an 8.1MW solar farm in the west of England, announced last week.

"The upcoming Tohoku Plant is a blueprint for future production facilities,” confirmed Kuriyagwa in a written statement yesterday. 

“Harnessing the latest technology from our world-record-setting Atsugi Research Center, we are targeting the production of CIS thin-film modules with conversion efficiency of over 15% at best-in-class production costs. The modularity of our new production lines will also enable us to deploy new factories faster and more efficiently in the future." 

Kuriyagawa said construction is on track to meet the facility's scheduled opening date, March 2015.

In addition to conducting research at the Atsugi Research Center in Japan, which in April yielded a CIS solar cell with an efficiency of 20.9% as verified by Fraunhofer Institute ISE and building the Tohoku facility, Solar Frontier announced its intent in June to look into performing research and development in the USA. The company has signed a memorandum of understanding with the State University of New York College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering to carry out a feasibility study of a collaboration on research and development and manufacturing of CIS thin-film modules in Buffalo, New York.