Solar Power 2007 points up production progress for nano-based solutions

By Tom Cheyney, Small Times Senior Contributing Editor

October 4, 2007 — With an exhibit hall sold out months in advance and markets growing at prodigious double-digit rates, the Solar Power 2007 conference and exposition attracted over 12,000 visitors to the Long Beach (Calif.) Convention Center and adjacent Hyatt hotel last week, September 24 – 27. The 210 exhibiting companies represented most of the solar-photovoltaic value chain, from materials and equipment suppliers, to crystalline-silicon and thin-film cell and module manufacturers, to systems integrators, installers, and public utility companies. And nanotechnology was represented throughout.

While market-leading companies such as Sharp, Q-Cells, SolarWorld, and Kyocera, and prominent new players such as Applied Materials, and SunPower maintained large booths on the show floor, many early-stage companies kept lower-though-still-active profiles.

“We offer a better, cheaper way to make panels using existing cells,” said Solaria‘s CEO, Suvi Sharma. Backed by Q-Cells and Moser Baer and flush with $50 million in recent funding, the company has developed a cost-effective technology which “takes a standard solar cell and cuts it into thin strips, and puts them into a packaged ‘super-cell.'” In effect, two or more cells can be made out of one starter cell, thus using a fraction of the silicon while maintaining high conversion efficiencies. The proprietary top elements in Solaria’s devices are injected-molded polymer “minitroughs,” which “concentrate light on each cell underneath,” according to Sharma.

While its 2.5-MW automated pilot line runs at its Fremont, Calif., headquarters, Solaria is setting up cell and module volume-production facilities in the Philippines. He said the cell-factory (run by contract manufacturing partner, Ionics EMS) “will scale up to 25 MW in 2008 . . . and 100 MW in 2009.” Noting the challenges of ramping an admittedly tricky process to high-volume manufacturing (and the company’s current concentration on process control), Sharma admitted that “it’s one thing to produce a thousand units a day, but another to make thousands and thousands.”

Another PV module sector newcomer in capacity-ramp mode is two-year-old Solar Semiconductor. The company recently signed a multiyear, $170 million deal with ersol Solar Energy of Germany for the supply of mono- and multicrystalline cells to Solar Semi’s fully automated 50-MW plant in Hyderabad, India. One of the start-up’s key “differentiators,” according to president Hari Surapaneni, is its ability to manufacture modules using ultrathin solar-cell wafers, down to “140 to 150 microns” thick. That’s 25% more wafers and 25% less silicon.”

“Our major focus now is to make high-quality modules, field-tested in aggressive conditions,” explained Surapaneni. Recent electrical results on a Solar Semi three-bus-bar, 60-cell, 240-W module hit conversion efficiencies of 16.3% at the cell level and 14.5% at the module, with only a few watts of output lost. In terms of its manufacturing plans, he said the company “will be ramping our second plant by the end of the year, eventually bringing our total capacity to 180 MW next year, with plans to install 500 MW by 2012.”

Speaking from his company’s experience working with several different module customers, ersol CEO Claus Beneking cited the equipment and testing challenges of thin-wafer module manufacturing, while lauding Solar Semi’s efforts: “We will get to 160- to 180-micron-thick wafers by the end of the decade.” He also pointed out a key aspect of the two companies’ agreement. In certain “special cases,” Solar Semi will function as a contract module manufacturer for ersol. “We will send the cells to Solar Semi, and then get back the modules to sell.”

As a veteran of more than 25 years in the business, Sharp’s Ron Kenedi was “happy for the excitement” he saw at the Solar Power show, in the industry, and by the public. The VP of the company’s solar energy solutions group referred to a recent Roper survey of U.S. consumers (commissioned by Sharp): Results showed that “almost 90% of the respondents think solar is more important than ever” and should be an option for all new home construction. He believes that solar-PV is no longer about “technology for technology’s sake. It’s now more about financial and lifestyle considerations. The more, the better; the more competition, the better.”


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