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Latest on the solar PV innovators: Roundup


Joyce Laird

Joyce Laird catches up with some companies we featured exactly a year ago to find out whether 2010 fell short, met, or exceeded 2009 projections on the solar photovoltaic (PV) technology front.

Ups and downs in PV technologies

2010 was a roller-coaster year for many manufacturers for a multitude of reasons.

While the general global economy was easy to blame, most say it is difficult to put a finger on exactly what did happen. But a general consensus seems to suggest that the bump in the road for many thin-film technologies came about because their growth was simply too fast, based on a hope that silicon prices would remain high.

Other analysts blame the general economy, because the market that thin-film really shines in is the large scale utility environment, and this requires major construction and project financing. And everyone knows how tight financing became. Because of this, some thin-film businesses flat-lined, and couldn't reinvest back into R&D to keep the product lines going at the same pace as the Silicon world.

Then the lean manufacturing “perfect storm” hit.

Lean typically means JIT (Just in Time) ordering with minimal stockpiling of supplies. Great when the flow keeps steady. Not so great when suppliers run low because they also don't want to overstock. And while this didn't affect the giants of the solar industry – which could immediately grab a corner on all materials and components needed to keep production going – it did cause substantial delays for the smaller companies which waited for lengthy backorders to arrive.

The companies that made the biggest strides forward were those with a very solid business plan, which made calculated steps. But even those who did take a few hard hits seem to have regrouped and finished the year on a high note.

Mark Chen, director of marketing for Abound Solar (Loveland, CO), says that a lot has changed this year: “Last year we were just starting up production, and we have gone from running no product to running approximately 40 megawatts per year.”

The success of Abound Solar is based on two things; first the company's fundamental technology is a Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) thin-film so it is lower cost than crystalline silicon. This automatically lowers cost. Next, even relative to other thin-film producers, the company maintains a very tight process:

“As we ramped up production, we have essentially gained all the economies of scale associated with good production, high yield and throughput and efficiencies that also drive down cost,” Chen says. “As an example when we first started producing product in the 4th quarter of 2009, the products we produced were 6% efficient. Today they are over 10% efficient and the production cost is the same. We are still paying for the glass, chemicals, depreciation of the equipment and so on, but we are now getting 60% – 70% more power out of the product. That translates to less cost per watt.”

Abound Solar currently has over 20 MW in the field. One of the projects is the Brightfield installation, which is in Bakersfield, CA. This is always a test of promising new photovoltaic technologies like CdTe.

“We also worked with Wirsol Solar A.G. to create the very first solar-powered Burger King in Waghäusel, Germany”, Chen adds. 720 solar PV modules will reportedly generate at least 53,500 kWh of electricity each year from the premises. Solar PV panels were installed on the roof and also over the parking area. A wind turbine added to the traditional exterior logo sign will provide additional electricity.

“We just received a loan guarantee from the US Department of Energy for US$400 million to expand capacity, in total, to about 900 megawatts. So we will expand both at our current site in Colorado and be building a new facility in Indiana. We plan on building the new facility next year and moving into it in the 2012 time frame,” he added.

Per Michael Bartholomeusz, ceo for Applied Quantum Technology (AQT) (Santa Clara, CA, USA), explained that the company moved into its first manufacturing plant in May, and officially opened in August. “We are commercialising and will be shipping our first products in December,” he says.

Bartholomeusz explains that many companies will take capitally-inefficient approaches where they require massive amounts of capital input to get them going and keep them going. “In our case, we don't have to deal with platform issues. Our capacity increments are 15 MW. So, depending on variations in the market, I can either slow down or accelerate based on cash flow needs. And because I am using other module manufacturers and they need cells – and I only make cells – I have a very unique niche in the market.

The companies that made the biggest strides forward were those with a very solid business plan which had made calculated steps. But even those that did take a few hard hits have regrouped and finished the year on a high note.
 

“I am not competing with the crystalline [silicon] module producers, [nor] with the CIGS guys or any other thin-film module manufacturers”, he says, “so I have a high degree of freedom. We use very low cost equipment that allows us to easily adjust to, and ride out, industry cycles as they occur. Instead of competing with module manufacturers, I offer them a solution. This gives us a lot of degrees of freedom. Our business model is unique and in the thin-film area, it gives us access to the largest market possible.”

CIGS success story

In May 2010 Ascent Solar (Thornton, CO, USA) became the first company to commence regular production of monolithically integrated lightweight thin-film CIGS modules using a plastic substrate.

“This milestone marked the initiation of Ascent Solar's regular production capability and its factory ramp up based on market demand,” Brian Blackman, director, Investor Relations, says. “Initial production from FAB 2 produced 10.5% efficient modules with peak module aperture efficiency as high as 11.9%, which gave the company a very competitive product across our target market.”

According to Blackman, Ascent solar achieved “many” milestones in 2010, not least of which was becoming the first manufacturer of thin-film flexible monolithically integrated CIGS modules to receive full IEC 61646 certification upon completion of environmental testing. “This opens the door for an aggressive push into BIPV and building applied photovoltaic (BAPV) applications for use in commercial, industrial and residential rooftop markets,” he says.

Two new product offerings also helped round out the Ascent portfolio. In September, it launched its WaveSol series of five metre long modules and in October, its OEM-ready USB charger was introduced. According to the company, this charger provides an integrated solution for portable, off-grid charging of PV modules. “The integration of the USB outlet makes it a universally-acceptable application that can meet the needs of a diverse and growing market for portable power in developed and emerging market countries,” Blackman says.

Customisation key for Odersun

Odersun (Frankfurt, Germany) is arguably the leader in customised solar modules for BIPV projects.

As a refresher, Odersun super cells are created on long flexible substrates that can be cut into any size and format for final modules. The company also designs its own unique production equipment: “We have certified our factories and our module technologies on the electrical and mechanical side, and now that our manufacturing and technology is secured, we have a clean sweep on the technology which allows us to go forward with customised solutions,” Uwe Hering, chief sales and marketing officer, explains.

“We also increased our capacity, introducing our new factory in the middle of the year, and we started shipping products. We secured several BIPV projects, supplying highly-customised modules. As planned last year, we are moving from a technology development company to a manufacturing company for standard modules, and to an R&D company with the capability to offer highly-customisable solutions.”

What makes Odersun's thin-film technology stand out is that the company can provide any size module and a variety of encapsulation materials, colouring and railing or mounting systems. Everything it offers conforms to what an architect or building designer has specified. The designer never has to design a “work-around” to accommodate the use of solar renewable energy, the company claims.

To serve all BIPV markets, Odersun now provides standard modules and semi-customised modules in the most popular (or unusual) sizes, and configurations as catalogue type products. However the jewel in the company's crown is its customisable cell.

Hering says that the company is cost-competitive, but notes that it only services this specific niche: “We are not trying to butt heads with the large gorillas in the industry. We are not trying to replace standard solar panels. We are providing custom solutions to architects and designers. They receive the obvious benefit of the solar power generated, in a product that has aesthetic value. Our products not only produce energy – they add to the design of the building as well.”

The support industry boom

While some PV technology manufacturers have seen hard times in 2010, it has been a booming year for components, equipment and materials.

Components

Last autumn BioSolar's (Santa Clarita, CA) ceo David Lee said that the company's goal was to go into limited production with its proprietary BioBacksheet formulation (based on cotton and a form of nylon resin made from castor bean oil) in early 2010. He reports back that the company remains on target:

“We went into limited production in May. We sent a large number of samples to PV manufacturers and we have been gaining input from them. We are beginning to find out what future requirements will be, not just what is required right now,” he says.

As for the industry in general, Lee says that the solar platform has become quite mature in the past few years. Manufacturers are getting field test reports outlining problems they did not expect, so they are ramping up certain requirements and loosening up other requirements. An example he points to is that to simulate 20 to 25 years of harsh outdoor environment, typically 1,000 hour damp heat testing was used. This is done at 85 degrees C, at 85% relative humidity, for 1,000 hours. Then the product is evaluated to see how much deterioration the module shows:

However, he says, “after real field trials results, most module manufacturers upped this test to 2,000 hours to validate their products. So when we got the results of their tests and saw the new requirements, we upped our testing to 3,000 hours just to make sure we were staying ahead of the curve”.

Equipment

According to Rob DeLine, chief marketing officer, Energy and Display Products at Applied Materials (Santa Clara, CA USA), the last 12 months has been a wild ride. The big market for capital equipment exploded, exceeding internal forecasts by a wide margin – with one well-publicised and much talked about exception: SunFab.

“Our crystalline silicon business has achieved records in bookings and profitability. But, on the thin-film side we had to make a very painful choice to discontinue the SunFab business unit,” he says.

SunFab was Applied's PV turnkey factory line – a complete end to end solution which allows customers to start producing large PV panels from scratch – and the company predicted that its heritage in producing flat panel displays would lend itself perfectly to this model. Unfortunately it didn't, with the Unit's engineers' allegedly reported to have spent too much time sorting out customer issues to drive the development of the core technology, a situation that ultimately couldn't be allowed to continue.

Applied is quick to downplay the seriousness of this situation for its solar business in general, and points to its diversified businesses doing rather better than SunFab as evidence of this. On the crystalline silicone side, Applied Materials has two businesses. The first manufactures advanced wire sawyers that slice silicon ingots into the thin wafers; PWF, or precision wafer systems.

New technologies to watch

EnergyMatrix, a division of Innovation Matrix, recently partnered with SRE Solutions LLC, of Milpitas, California to develop energy saving solar powered street lights. By combining EnergyMatrix's LED street lighting solution with SRE's solar panels, the companies hope to create lighting that conserves energy, reduces the carbon footprint and produces renewable energy.

“SRE has extensive experience with solar system products, and combining their solar panels with our LED products will allow us to offer the most energy efficient street lighting available,” hopes Eimei Onaga, president of EnergyMatrix.

“Street lights contribute significantly towards energy consumption [in the USA and elsewhere], adds Fakhar Khalifa, ceo of SRE Solutions:

“About 305 billion kWh was consumed for lighting by the commercial sector in 2008 in the USA alone, which includes both commercial and institutional buildings, as well as public-street and highway lighting; equivalent to about 23% of the commercial sector's electricity consumption. The conversion of street and parking lot lights to renewable energy can contribute significantly towards the reduction of our carbon footprint, and can save local Governments millions of dollars in energy costs”.

Meanwhile, based in Santa Barbara, CA USA, Hyper Solar Inc. claims to have made the next breakthrough in solar. Ceo Tim Young says that this will not come from increasing the efficiency of the cells, but by getting more energy into the cell, regardless of its efficiency factor. The theory behind this new technology is that by keeping the same footprint, but reducing the amount of solar cells needed within that footprint and placing a proprietary concentrator layer over the top, this has the potential to reduce the cost per watt of electricity.

Young says that if 50% of the solar cells normally used in an installation can be removed in this way, the same power generated from the remaining cells at a much lower material cost actually results in a 25% cost per watt reduction, even adding back in the cost of the concentrator.

“We do this using optical light pipes,” Young says. “These light pipes transfer the energy from our layer into the remaining cells of the solar panel. If you can reduce the amount of silicon cells needed and still get the same, or better, energy output, you can substantially save cost by using an inexpensive optical layer like ours. We believe that we will be able to produce modules cheaper than the existing crystalline types.

“While we are focused on mono and polycrystalline silicon because it has the largest market share,” he continues, “in theory, if you can de-couple and transfer the energy rate, this concentrator technology will work with any type of solar cell.”

The end goal is to license the technology to solar panel manufacturers, he adds. “We haven't got that far with the business plan yet,” he concedes. “When we are ready with this prototype, we will partner with one solar manufacturer so they can beta test the product and give us feedback to perfect it, so it can move to a commercial prototype stage. In getting those ribbons of light into a solar cell, the tricky part is the structure, and that has never been done before. That's the proprietary part of our technology,” Young says.

The other business is Baccini Cell Systems (Baccini Esatto), which performs patterning and metallisation on the wafer. DeLine says that this business unit has essentially “tripled in volume” from where it started last Spring.

Baccini Esatto Technology is an integrated solution for high precision screen printing used for Baccini's back end processing systems. The Esatto Technology is designed to raise the efficiency of c-Si solar cells by enabling the fabrication of advanced contact structures.

That technology is a high precision kit that allows the manufacturer's cell line to get higher cell efficiency for lower usage of materials. “It's a win-win. The two guiding mantras in Si are higher efficiencies and lower material cost. Our technology is able to provide both,” DeLine claims.

As for the thin-film area, DeLine says that inherent in innovation is the willingness to take risks, and that sometimes risks don't always work out as planned. He points to two factors for this: First, the crystalline silicon side of PV technology proceeded faster in cost reductions than anyone had anticipated. And second, the business model was to sell a total, integrated thin-film “turnkey factory”. The economic downturn, he says, made it very difficult for customers to invest in a full turkey solution:

“Customers are still interested in our deposition technology. When we discontinued SunFab as a turnkey business model, we kept an R&D capability in thin-film to make sure we keep tabs on the industry to see if we can move it forward again in a different model, or in a different way,” DeLine concludes.

In 2009 Tyco Thermal Controls (Menlo Park, CA, USA) had just launched its heating technology product line for thin-film; one version providing radiant heat for vacuum deposition and another, conductive heat for lamination processes. Although the industry as a whole slowed down midyear, Chris Mayes, director of product marketing says that the crisis has passed and things are picking up for Tyco, particularly in Germany, Italy and Japan:

“The market for thin-film is recovering, not quite as fast as we'd hoped, but it is recovering,” he says. “Even with the glitch this year, thin-film has still grown from about 10% to 20% of the market,” he says. “As for our equipment, we continued to improve the manufacturing processes. We took the slowdown as an opportunity to pinpoint any weak spots and strengthen the process. Because of this, we have grown substantially. It's all about getting into the right environment and working with the right people. The benefit is that our heating technology replaces multiple units with one very cost effective large unit that has complete edge to edge control. Higher equipment stability, efficiency and better ROI are what keep the customers profitable.”

Another area that Mayes said grew substantially for Tyco in 2010 was power from Parabolic Trough CSP – a form of concentrated solar power. Established in 2009, Andasol was the first parabolic trough power plant in Europe. The plant has a thermal storage system which absorbs part of the heat produced in the solar field during the day. This heat is then stored in a molten salt mixture of 60% sodium nitrate and 40% potassium nitrate. A turbine produces electricity using this heat during the evening, or when the sky is overcast.

“In this case Tyco cables are used to heat the liquid transferring the solar energy. These are very different processes from heating thin-films, but the concentrated solar power area is just another way to use our expertise,” he adds.

Materials

Last year, Andy London, global business unit manager predicted that Heraeus' Photovoltaic Business Unit intended to produce two to three new products per year; materials that would help solar manufacturers rise to higher efficiencies. He says that they exceeded that prediction.

“Our SLL9400 series is a brand new material for both multi and mono-crystalline cells. It improves efficiency by 0.3% over the SOL9235H which is still really our leading product. The new material was released in September. So it is now scaling up with customers worldwide,” London says.

“We also released another product called SOL9383 which is for N-type cells. Right now only about 5% of cells are produced in this manner but the percentage is gradually increasing and more people are moving toward manufacturing N-type cells. If they do it right, changing to the N-type cell will increase efficiency by about a half a percentage point.”

The bump in the road for many thin-film technologies came about because their growth was just too fast, based on the hope that silicon prices would remain high.
 

As for the business unit itself, London says it is growing rapidly since its inception only a year ago. London reports that the company has achieved close to a 40% market share in silver pastes: “For front side pastes, we hold over a 50% market share. In China and Taiwan which are our two key markets, it is closer to 75%. China and Taiwan hold about 60% of the global solar market in terms of solar cell production – China about 40% and Taiwan about 20%.

“The company also expanded with a new division in Taiwan and three other sites,” he continues. “The US is just completing an expansion that will bring us to 100 tonnes per month. The German facility is expanding to provide a capability of 20 tonnes per month and Shanghai has completed its expansion to 20 tonnes per month. That gives the total capacity now of 140 tonnes per month. We are not at that capacity yet but it gives us the space to ramp up. Things are moving at a very rapid rate right now.”

For the coming year, the big push for Heraeus is finding qualified people to hire worldwide. “We are hiring and I wouldn't mind if you let the world know about that,” London says. “During this calendar year we doubled our technical staff. Our plan is to do the same in 2011. That is globally. We need them everywhere.”

Integral Technologies (IT), Inc. (Bellingham, WA) was at the early stage of its development this time last year. The company's technology is based on the formulation of adding or removing specific desired properties into and from tiny pellets that are moulded into final end products. In the solar PV market, this is typically for backplanes.

“We are targeting all solar PV technologies with our conductive polymer pellets. It is easy to change the pellet to meet low end, high end or anything in-between,” Bill Robinson, ceo says.

According to Robinson, the company is just about to file some provisional patents on its new material for solar. After the patent is in place, he says the material will be taken to solar manufacturers for testing in real world applications.

The technology of organic PV (OPV) continues to make news, both in the laboratory and as it ever so slowly edges towards commercialisation.

Plextronics’ (Pittsburgh, PA, USA) organic conductive inks were at early R&D in 2009. Today, James Dietz, vice president of business development says that the company continues to push the efficiency higher and higher: “We are at 7% efficiency in our solar cells and we have made the transition this past year to flexible substrates and larger areas with a number of partners. Our focus is now on pilot projects in early 2011”.

While much OPV research is done using forms of thermal or vapour deposition, Plextronics set out to remove any type of vapour deposition from its process. “This is strictly a web printing process. Even some of the metal electrodes will be moved to a printed step. That's one of the benefits. It is a very low cost printing process,” Dietz says.

One area Plextronics is targeting with partners is indoor solar under artificial lighting. “This is an area we identified as having specific selling points for our technology over traditional solar. If you look at the absorption spectrum of our ink for indoor lighting, it's almost perfectly matched with the irradiance of fluorescent lights. So we pull the highest efficiencies out of indoor lighting.”

Solar PV modules – “volume is vanity, profit is sanity”

Despite shipments of solar photovoltaic (PV) modules set to grow in 2011, rapid price erosion may see a decline in market revenues next year according to the latest analysis from IMS Research.

A detailed analysis of key industry metrics reveals that although MW shipments of solar PV modules have grown at an average of 60% over the past two years, industry revenues have only grown by 13%.

As the industry prepares to enter a period of softening demand and decreasing prices, solar PV suppliers will need to concentrate on growing revenues and profits and not just focus on who's shipping the most MWs.

Solar PV module shipments are forecast to grow by over 65% to more than 16 GW in 2010. However, reductions in incentive schemes in the world's largest solar PV market, Germany, as well as a correction of the pulled-forward demand seen in 2010, are likely to bring about a slowdown in growth and IMS Research predicts that shipments will increase by less than 20% in 2011.

The slowing of shipment growth, combined with declining prices, means that PV module revenues may in fact decline in 2011, depending on how severe the slowdown is in the first half of the year.

“The PV industry is currently in a period of very high growth, driven by robust demand from almost every area of the market,” says Sam Wilkinson, PV Research Analyst at IMS Research.

“However, the industry has a dangerous tendency to only focus on MWs and GWs or capacity and shipments, rather than revenues and margins. Price declines driven by reductions in incentives and increasingly competitive market conditions mean that whilst the module market may continue to increase in terms of volume, the outlook is quite different when measured in terms of revenues.”

In fact, 2011 is not the only time that the market has performed in this way. 2009 saw solar PV module shipments grow quickly in the second half of the year and overall MW shipments increased by over 50%.

However, rapid price declines throughout a large part of the year meant that industry revenues in fact declined. Whilst the solar PV market may seem on the surface to be a booming market, a closer look at the real bottom line makes solar PV module market growth look far less impressive.


About the author:

Based in California, Joyce Laird has been writing for a wide range of industrial magazines for over a decade. Her extensive background in the semiconductor industry created a perfect transition to covering developments in photovoltaics.


Renewable Energy Focus, Volume 11, Issue 6, November-December 2010, Pages 24-31

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