Abound Solar opens its first CdTe PV production facility

by Debra Vogler, senior technical editor, Photovoltaics World

April 16, 2009 – Abound Solar (formerly AVA Solar), a manufacturer of low-cost thin-film photovoltaic (PV) solar panels using cadmium telluride (CdTe), has opened its first full-scale production facility in Longmont, CO. The manufacturing process employs proprietary continuous in-line semiconductor equipment to convert sheets of glass into solar panels in less than two hours. Within the next 30-45 days, the facility will be ramped up into production, company president and CEO Pascal Noronha told PV World, and at full capacity the fully automated facility will produce 200MW of solar modules annually. “We have a sufficient backlog that we can be at full scale production fairly quickly,” he noted. “When the factory is ramped up, we will be producing modules at <$1/W, and we expect to be able to drop that number materially in the next few years as we scale our production."

Abound Solar was founded in 2007 to commercialize a proprietary process for manufacturing thin-film photovoltaic modules, using patented technology developed by Prof. W.S. Sampath of Colorado State University, built upon 15 years of development at CSU with support from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The company has applied for a DOE loan guarantee program, noted Russ Kanjorski, VP of marketing. That process involved a number of third-party reviews, including a full environmental review/audit. Bousted Consulting looked end-to-end from sand to black-box manufacturing to the module, he explained, to calculate the amount of energy used in the entire process, and compared the results to the standard US electrical grid and other competing PV technologies (see Figure). “We were significantly below in the calculations,” he said.

Energy payback time (in years) of Abound Solar’s x-Si and a-Si modules. (Source: Abound Solar/Bousted Consulting Environmental Report)

Abound’s manufacturing technology is based on “closed-space sublimation” — it takes place in a vacuum with all process steps in a continuous chamber. The pressure range of the process is anywhere from ~10mTorr to ~60mTorr, and the process temperature can be anywhere between 200°C-700°C. “A piece of glass goes in one end every 90sec or 2min, and ~28 min. later, a piece of glass comes out the other end, virtually ready to be made into a module,” noted Noronha. “It combines in one step multiple processes that other companies have to do in either batches or a semi-continuous process, and then they have to bring the substrate back up to atmosphere before going to the next step.” Because the technology was developed at CSU, the company designed and optimized the manufacturing equipment and assembled the components.

Compared to other solar PV technologies, Abound’s CdTe technology is much less expensive and more efficient than amorphous silicon, Noronha said. “CdTe does much better in lower light at higher temperatures than silicon, which needs idealized conditions,” he told PV World. CIGS, meanwhile, has many different “flavors” and thus appears to be not a very homogeneous technology, and he knows of no company doing commercial production on a material scale.

Material usage for the production line is >98% and the yield is very high, according to Noronha. Because the manufacturing line is 100% automated (no operator is required) and labor cost is low, the company has been able to keep the manufacturing cost to sales below $1. The total time between when a piece of glass enters the line and a finished module comes out is <2hrs (the line runs 24/7). Noronha feels very strongly about the US market, and hinted that the company is comfortable with the prospect of having two or three factories in the US. He also noted the new site creates more than 300 new jobs.

This article was originally published by Photovoltaics World.


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