Mission Solar Energy: New PV star rising over Texas

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In late 2011, Mission Solar Energy made the first of several bold decisions:  build a silicon-based PV manufacturing plant in the US, a market long dominated by thin-film technologies. An even more unusual decision followed to locate the company in San Antonio, Texas, rather than California or Arizona where US solar markets are well established. Then, Mission Solar made the gutsy move to push forward with the development of an n-type monocrystaline silicon based product when the market was being dominated by p-type multicrystaline silicon modules coming out of Asia.

Fast-forward to today, and it’s clear these bold decisions are beginning to pay off. 

Mission Solar Energy recently completed construction of its 100MW San Antonio facility, a demonstration of the company’s commitment to the growth of a nascent solar industry in Texas and America’s growth in the new energy economy of the 21st century. 

The company is poised for growth in both the domestic and global markets. Such success does not come without challenge. Below are a few obstacles Mission Solar Energy faced in the months and years leading up to the fabrication of their first module.

Upon groundbreaking of the MSE facilities, San Antonio was very new to the arena of high tech solar manufacturing. Concerns arose regarding the company’s ability to hire talented individuals to successfully operate the facility.  MSE found, however, that it was relatively easy to put together a highly qualified and dedicated team consisting mainly of local hires and others with outside expertise. 

San Antonio may conjure images of cattle drives and cowboys, but the reality is different.  Today, as a “city on the rise,” San Antonio boasts a healthy manufacturing base which has grown even stronger with the presence of a major automobile manufacturer (Toyota), and a community of highly skilled military veterans. 

MSE also tapped solar engineers with silicon background in its parent company’s home of Korea, individuals with technology manufacturing backgrounds from Austin, and industry hardened folks with US thin-film solar experience.  Even a global solar journeyman or two joined the MSE team.

Another question that the company had to face was whether there was potential for solar market growth in Texas, a state better known for wind energy. In fact, the US as a whole was not known as a solar powerhouse. Fortunately, MSE was able to benefit from a recent pick-up in planned solar installations in Texas driven by forward looking municipal utilities such as CPS Energy, San Antonio’s municipally owned electric and gas utility.  CPS Energy was interested in the economic development potential of solar energy and strategically brought together a consortium of solar suppliers that would fuel infrastructure investment, education, jobs and a local solar industry for years to come.

MSE and others believed that Texas had a bright future in solar. To quote the president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Rhone Resch, in 2011, “Texas has the potential to be a MASSIVE solar market. To put it into perspective, the sunshine that falls on Texas each month has more energy than all of the oil that has ever been pumped out of this state.  If you think oil made Texas great, just wait till you see what they do with solar….”. 

The U.S. as a whole also began to see a pick-up in solar installations, led by increased public awareness of solar, attractive rebates from utilities such as San Antonio’s CPS Energy and favourable federal government policies such as the ITC (investment tax credit). That trend continues. 

According to a recent report from GTM Research and SEIA, the US installed 1,133 MW of solar PV in Q214, up 21 percent over Q213, making it the fourth-largest quarter for solar installations in the history of the market. Cumulative operating PV capacity has now eclipsed the 15 GW mark, thanks to three consecutive quarters of more than 1 GW installed, and this is not just being driven by utilities. As of the first half of 2014, more than a half-million US homeowners and commercial customers have installed solar PV.

MSE today believes that the US solar market is in the early stages of an explosive growth phase. Much of the current growth is in the utility and residential markets, but the company also sees significant commercial rooftop market opportunities in the US. Given the constrained space of rooftop locations, MSE sees this market as ideal for our higher-efficiency n-type product. While the near-term focus for MSE is the US, longer-term, MSE hopes to use our base in Texas to launch business throughout the Americas. 

Cost competitiveness is an ongoing challenge, as it remains difficult to compete with the lowest-cost Asian manufacturers. However, MSE believes there is potential to aggressively reduce the costs of manufacturing their product. The company expects that over time the cost of n-type wafers will come down and become more competitive with p-type wafers. 

In the short term, MSE is focusing on increasing module efficiency to be competitive. While thin-film may be near to peaks in terms of module efficiency, and the p-type silicon efficiency improvement curve has slowed down, MSE believes that significant efficiency gains can still be had in n-type products. The development of new products such as bifacial modules and the new markets that type of product could open up are areas of intense interest to the company.

To date, MSE has fulfilled several deliveries to local utility scale projects being developed by OCI Solar Power for CPS Energy. The Alamo 3 project, for which MSE is the sole module supplier, is expected to begin operations later this year. This project will be followed by several larger Alamo projects for CPS Energy that will help them meet their goal of having 20% of generation capacity coming from renewable sources by 2020. 

At its core, Mission Solar Energy is dedicated to investing in the San Antonio community. Through projects with local school districts the company gives back while educating communities about the benefits of adopting solar energy. MSE is working to provide affordable solar systems to local school districts that can be utilized as engaging, hands-on learning opportunities for students.  

MSE is also partnering with a local university, the University of Texas at San Antonio, to develop a solar test bed to measure and define optimal solar arrangement conditions with the end goal of certifying new innovative solar configurations. The company has also made significant commitments to the Alamo Community Colleges to jointly develop solar education and training programs. 

Today, just as MSE launches its 100MW manufacturing facility, the company is preparing to install additional production lines to bring total capacity to more than 200MW in the near future. Recently, other established U.S. solar players such as First Solar and SolarCity have announced interest in building n-type monocrystaline silicon based PV manufacturing plants, underscoring that PV manufacturing is coming back to the US in a big way. MSE plans to stay ahead of the curve and continue its visionary approach to solar cell and module manufacturing.

 Looks like those brave decisions made in 2011, turned out to be good ones. 

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