SOLAR NEWS: Taiwan, Japan firms placing solar bets

October 9, 2007 – A scan of recent headlines nets several stories of interest to the solar/photovoltaics sector, including growth plans by Japanese firms and Taiwan automation tool suppliers, and a US firm’s expansion efforts through M&A in Europe.

Japan firms target solar cell growth

Fuji Electric Systems Co. is investing 37 billion yen (US $317.6M) over the next four years to achieve a 12x increase in annual production of light, flexible solar panels, to around 150MW, according to the Nikkei daily.

The unit of Japan’s Fuji Electric Holdings Co. started mass production of thin-film amorphous solar cells this past spring at a factory in Kumamoto Prefecture, and plans to start construction on an adjacent second site next year and a third site in 2009, each with annual production of ~50-60MW, the paper reports.

Fuji Electric Systems claims it’s the only company in the world that mass-produces its type of amorphous solar cells — a battery layer is formed on a polymide film (also used in circuit boards for mobile phones), and then covered with a protective resin film. Power generation efficiency is only about two-thirds of polysilicon solar cells, but it’s half as thick (~1mm) and weighs just 1/13 (1kg/sq. m) as much as polysilicon cells, at roughly equal production costs.

The company aims to sell the product in Europe and China for use in rooftop solar panels and portable battery chargers targeting at more than 10 billion yen in fiscal 2009.

The Nikkei notes that other Japanese firms are exploring nonsilicon solar cells, including Honda Motor Co. and Showa Shell Sekiyu KK. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. also is focusing on amorphous solar cells, the paper notes.

Amtech buys French automation tool firm

Amtech Systems Inc. has acquired R2D Ingenierie, a solar cell and semiconductor automation equipment manufacturing company based in Montpellier, France, to bolster its solar equipment offerings.

The deal’s pricetag of $6.1 million is being set up in payments that will be contingent on R2D making improvements to its product line and production and technology transfer capabilities. Amtech also is providing a $1.0M “working capital infusion” to help build up the firm’s solar business.

R2D, which posted an operating profit of about $800K on sales of about $4.9M in 2006, sells mass transfer systems, sorters, long-boat transfer systems, load station elevators, buffers and conveyers, using what it calls “unique vacuum technology” in its solar wafer transfer systems to ensure high throughput. The firm says “key personnel” have signed three-year employment agreements to stay with Amtech.

“This acquisition advances our strategic objective to increase our share of the rapidly growing solar market and is part of our ongoing effort to truly become a multi-product provider to solar cell manufacturers,” said J.S. Whang, president/CEO of Amtech, in a statement.

Taiwan automation tool suppliers brace for solar surge

Equipment suppliers in Taiwan hope to reap big business opportunities in the solar sector, amid expectations that demand for thin-film solar cells will trigger reciprocal demand for their automation equipment, and that contract business will come their way from bigger international suppliers like Applied Materials, notes the Taiwan Economic News.

Thin-film solar cells are only used in about 3% of all solar cell-based products, but a shortage of refined silicon is pulling more interest away from polysilicon-based solar cells into alternative technologies, the paper notes. With domestic big-names including UMC, CMC Magnetics, and Tatung Group all started manufacturing thin-film models, the market for related automation equipment could be in the tens of billions of (US) dollars.

Mirle Automation Corp., the island’s biggest automation tool supplier, is best positioned to win lucrative business from Applied, the paper notes. Also preparing for growth from the sector are Gallant Precision Machining Co. Ltd. and Marketech International Corp., which will likely “carve out niches” either through contract manufacturing or by supplying equipment directly to the solar firms.

The paper notes that Applied already has stated its intention to order hundreds of millions (US$) worth of automation equipment from domestic suppliers, particularly for its FPD business. Currently the firm makes tools for ~8.5G display panels and is expected to ramp to 10G in the future.

But Applied is also very publicly ramping its business selling thin-film solar cell manufacturing equipment, and Taiwan suppliers are in line to benefit. Mirle already has seen “overwhelming” orders this year with some production lines booked through January 2008. Pretax profits through August were up 13% from a year ago (to $15.7M), and the firm is reinvesting 5% of sales on new lines for thin-film solar cells.

Mirle is betting that solar cell makers are being pressed to incorporate more automation in their manufacturing, and will turn this pressure into tool orders “as soon as possible.” Mirle sees about $2.5-$3.1M coming from its first solar line, with “significant” growth in the next year.

AE announces two-site win for PV inverters

Two recent commercial PV installations in northern California from SunPower are using Advanced Energy Industries’ grid-tie photovoltaic inverters, which sport 97% CEC-weighted efficiency ratings, the company noted. Each site has >300kWp power generation capabilities, and will eliminate the equivalent of ~230 tons of CO2 emissions each year. AE claims its grid-tie inverters provide PV system integrators with better ROI by producing targeted output power levels with fewer solar modules.


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