How soon is SolarCity’s 1GW fab equipment order-frenzy?

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SolarCity’s 1GW fab has recently entered the final construction phase, seemingly on target for the end of the year and on budget at around US$350 million.

SolarCity’s 1GW fab has recently entered the final construction phase, seemingly on target for the end of the year and on budget at around US$350 million but when will the US$400 million on equipment happen?

The company was also able to work up a media-frenzy over its announcement of its new PV module performance from its 100MW pilot line facility in Silicon Valley. 

This milestone should also generate the initial US$50 million ‘earnout’ to Silevo shareholders if you are familiar with PV Tech’s in-depth coverage, which is payable before 31 December 2015.

With the Buffalo fab near construction completion, interest turns to the US$400 million capital expenditure plans for manufacturing equipment, which is being funded and controlled by the Research Foundation for the State University of New York. 

The pilot line is SolarCity’s stepping stone to the 1GW fab, providing a technology and process migration path as well as future process upgrades and cost reduction strategies for the main production fab as it ramps and gets to a planned full-capacity in 2017. 

PV Tech recently highlighted that SolarCity had increased its own spending, which was primarily related to the 100MW pilot line. 

This sparked some investigations as to what tools from which suppliers had been ordered for the pilot line and also another look at Silevo’s previous toolset, which was transferred to the new, larger pilot line. 

This provides some clues as to the likely tool selection for the Buffalo fab as there is expected to be a close correlation of key tooling from the pilot line and those ordered for the 1GW fab. 

That initial investigation proved more difficult than expected, given selection was done on a very discrete basis. However, a certain level of success has ensued. 

The pilot line is believed to be using turnkey back-end module assembly equipment from Japanese supplier NPC Group, well known for specialist PV module assembly equipment for monocrystalline and N-type monocrystalline product offerings. 

There are several logical reasons for the selection of NPC tools, driven importantly on a long history of supplying mono equipment tool variants for complete back-end assembly lines. 

Unlike SunPower that relies on proprietary tools, Silevo/SolarCity wanted high-performance modules but at a cost competitive level, ensuring a preference for standard equipment from established suppliers. In the case of NPC, Silevo/SolarCity have ticked that box.

Therefore, NPC would have to be in the running for a major order with the State University of New York. 

However, checking NPC’s financial reports it looks pretty clear that through the end of August, 2015 the company has not received a major order of any kind. 

During EU PVSEC in September a topic of discussion with equipment and material suppliers was the dearth of evidence over major equipment orders for the Buffalo fab and a certain level of head scratching. 

With fab construction coming to a close and expected tool install in the first half of 2016, order placements should be coming to the surface in one form or another. 

Typically, back-end equipment lead times are relatively short with order turnarounds in 3-4 months so not alarming for the Buffalo fab yet. 

Front-end equipment though is a different matter and can take nine months turnaround typically. However, major PV equipment suppliers are already struggling with full order books and extending lead times. 

However, Silevo’s hybrid-heterojunction cell architecture relies heavily on PVD processes and copper electroplating deposition, depending on their preferred supplier(s) may not be suffering from full order books as these suppliers could come from the semiconductor/Flat Panel Display and printed electronics markets. 

Silevo’s hybrid-heterojunction cell architecture relies heavily on PVD processes and copper electroplating deposition.

With an initial US$400 million spending frenzy planned the wait to start putting these pieces of the Buffalo 1GW fab jigsaw together is nearly over. 

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