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Movers and shakers: 10 companies to watch in the solar space


Joyce Laird

Innovation is happening in all stages of the solar value chain. We look at 10 companies to watch in the solar space.

ABB

ABB IS a leader in power and automation technologies that enable utility and industry customers to improve performance, while lowering environmental impact.

“When it comes to a solar power plant, we produce everything that goes into that plant – with the exception of the panels and the trackers,” Rick Ulam, business development manager says.

ABB has scooped first place in the Intersolar Awards (Photovoltaics) category, for its newly-launched Remote Switch Unit S800-RSU solution. ABB's S800-RSU solution specialises in managing common losses in the production of solar power. The intelligent process solution ensures that unaffected strings continue to function normally and deliver yield, in the event of a partial failure in the PV installation. Thanks to its low energy consumption levels, the strings can be controlled without “great losses”, and this unit provides additional security in the event of an accident. According to the company, the “longevity and lack of harmful components” add to the positive environmental proposition. It also offers string protection with remote operation from 0.1 to 125 Amps at PV voltages up to 1200VDC.

Amonix

U.S. Amonix, based in, Seal Beach, CA, is focused on reducing costs and enhancing power generation for concentrated PV (CPV) technology. Vahn Garboushian, founder & chief technology officer, explained that his big idea was to separate the collection from the inversion: “We use a lens that collects sunlight and then focuses it on a very tiny cell,” he says, “reducing the cost of generating solar electricity.”

He continues, “other types of solar cells give two dimensions of freedom, whereas our multi-junction cell is very, very efficient and although the actual cell or chip is very expensive material, it is very small, so it has no real impact on the cost of the total system. It reduces the system cost, yet uses a very high efficiency cell.”

Garboushian says that unlike other PV technologies, multi-junction cells use the full natural light spectrum, creating a potential for very high-efficiency electricity generation. “The highest efficiency in silicon is around 21%–22%. Our CPV cells generate power at approximately 41% efficiency”. Amonix creates modules, each at around 10 kW, which “can be installed very quickly to get a system up and running, and deliver 27% efficiency”.

Amonix has already received several accolades, including a recent nomination from NREL (to DoE) as a top U.S. technology developer. “The technology is very powerful and the fastest way to pass Megawatts and move on to Terawatts,” Garboushian concludes.

BioSolar

The California-based company manufactures a BioBacksheet (a single layer, bio-based, and ‘renewable-material’ based product).

The company's president and ceo David Lee explains that an important and groundbreaking difference between BioSolar's single layer product and the standard 3 layer product in use today, is that there is no adhesive holding layers together. This will make it “more durable in the future as it is exposed to the elements, because it can't delaminate like layered backsheets can.” He says that this is a major concern for module manufacturers: “We have developed a more reliable backsheet and we believe that once we get into high volume we will undercut the cost of existing backsheets by quite some margin,” Lee says.

Stan Levy, Chief Technical Officer, adds that BioSolar's BioBacksheet has a higher thermal conductivity than standard materials, and this allows the solar panels to run cooler which adds up to higher efficiency without surface treatment: “Surface treatments tend to age over time. Since ours is inherent to the material, that is not a problem.”

Meier Solar Solutions GmbH

Moving on to capital equipment, and Achim Harks, of Meier Solar Solutions, which produces laminators for encapsulating solar modules, reports that the German organisation has been named a 2011 Selected Landmark in the competition 365 Landmarks in the Land of Ideas, awarded by the Germany – Land of Ideas initiative, in partnership with Deutsche Bank.

Meier received the award for its innovative STACOLAM stack laminator technologies. The laminator consists of up to 10 levels, and achieves a capacity of up to 250 MW per year, making it “the most efficient laminator” in the world, and “representing the latest generation in laminating and encapsulating technology”. The awards ceremony will take place on 9 September 2011 as part of the Module Equipment Show 2011.

Skyline Solar

Skyline Solar, another U.S., California-based company, is innovating around efficiency at the complete system level: “We don't just ship a cell or a module or a panel, we ship a complete DC system,” explains Tim Keating. “It is a complete and pre-arranged system design that tells installers how and where to put it into the ground, has all the pieces that are needed, including the aperture to collect sunlight; module; tracker; and the DC wiring – this is all part of a Skyline system”.

Skyline leverages the expertise of other industries – the metalworking industry for the frame, rack and tracker; and the silicon industry and cell industry for its panel. In its new system it is now also leveraging the glass industry for the mirrors.

According to Keating, the new Skyline system has half the number of panels of its first system, and is twice as long. “We also use high efficiency panels and we doubled their concentration. We believe right now with our systems in average sunny locations any owner can easily reach 10c per kilowatt hour. In very sunny locations that can drop to 9 or even 8c. Since the system is pre-designed for the field, it installs quickly.”

Solon SE

SOLON SE is offering modules with the embedded SolarEdge DC-to-DC power optimiser, as part of its SOLraise Solar Power System. Each SOLON module is fitted with an embedded SolarEdge PowerBox, which is attached to the back of the module during manufacturing, replacing the standard junction box.

A company spokesperson noted that this will substantially increase yields, in particular on partially shaded roofs. The SOLON SOLraise is a complete system consisting of a SOLON module with an integrated DC-to-DC power optimiser, a properly adjusted inverter, and a web-based monitoring system.

SOLON's cooperation with SolarEdge gives it access to the technology of a leading company for power optimisation and monitoring technology. “The performance enhancing unit from SolarEdge is integrated into each module, increasing the energy yield through a continuous MPP tracking system in the module. In this manner it is possible to prevent mismatching losses, which are caused by varying output levels in series-connected modules, and to increase system yields by up to 25%”, the company claims.

A standard communication unit in the inverter transfers the output data to a server specifically for each module. The system performance can be monitored by computer, or even by smartphone at any time – via a web-based monitoring portal. Faults can therefore be detected earlier, even if they occur on individual modules. Additionally, installation becomes less complicated because module strings with varying lengths can be connected to a one-string inverter. The modules “can even be facing in different directions,” according to the company.

Suniva

Bruce McPherson, vice president of research and development, says that Suniva's ARTisun Select ion implantation system is based on what is used in the semiconductor industry, but that it has been redesigned for the high throughput requirements of solar manufacturing: “It avoids a need to put phosphorous all over the wafer, and allows a manufacturer to be very precise in implanting phosphorous only where it is needed,” McPherson says:

“What we've come up with is a way to change the core manufacturing process that reduces the number of steps, and increases the power of the manufactured solar cells. Prior to installing the system, Suniva was producing cells that had around about an 18% efficiency rate. With ARTisun Select, we've moved from a 9 step to an 8 step process, and have increased cell efficiencies to 19%”, he says.

The precise way of depositing material – in this case phosphorous – means that it is possible to use that same technology to deposit other materials that could advance the cell structure: “We have a roadmap,” explains McPherson. “The next major step we are taking is from 19% to 20% and that is the newest product, ARTisun Star”. Suniva also plans to implant boron in future developments, “and when we do that, we will increase our efficiencies another full percent.”

Suntech Power Holdings

When talking about solar panels, it's hard not to focus on undoubtedly the world's largest producer of solar panels for residential, commercial, industrial, and utility applications. With regional headquarters in China, Switzerland, and the U.S., and Gigawatt-scale manufacturing worldwide, Suntech has delivered more than 13,000,000 PV panels to over a thousand customers in more than 80 countries.

But as well as its exploits and success driving solar PV forward, Bjoern Emde says that Suntech was also recently honoured with the Global Leader Award 2011 from Murphy & Spitz, an accolade designed to recognise sustainable companies for “exceptional environmental, health and safety (EH&S) practices”. The recognition coincides with Suntech becoming one of the first global solar companies to achieve both OHSAS18001 and SA8000 certifications, two respected occupational health and social accountability standards. Suntech also implements an Environmental Management System, which was certified according to the ISO14001 standard in April 2006.

As the solar industry grows, it is important that all companies remember their environmental responsibilities, and while this kind of award isn't especially glamorous, companies like Suntech – which has such a huge manufacturing footprint – need to focus on this aspect of their performance to avoid bad press – and negative lobbying – from those who would look for ways to criticise the solar PV industry.

Westinghouse Solar

Westinghouse Solar is a new name for a company that many will have heard of already – Akeena.

“Akeena merged with Westinghouse in mid 2010 and re-launched the brand under the name Westinghouse Solar, but they are the same good products,” says Gary Mull, VP of marketing. “This merger came from our realisation that in order to truly expand the solar market, we needed more than just great products. We needed brand recognition and consumer trust. Our research into Westinghouse proved that was exactly what that brand name was. Consumers feel very comfortable buying from that brand. It fits our strategy to take solar mainstream”.

“By integrating the racking, wiring and grounding into the panel itself, the Westinghouse Solar commercial flat roof system is easier and faster to install than other rooftop systems,” said Barry Cinnamon, ceo of Westinghouse Solar. “As the cost of solar panels continues to decline, labour is becoming a larger component of the overall PV project cost. Westinghouse Solar is driving down the capital expense associated with commercial solar deployment by reducing rooftop installation materials and labour costs.

“All of our technology is based on driving down cost. To meet that goal, we have recently introduced two new products: a new large format 235 Watt, high output AC panel. Utilising an updated version of our technology in one of these large format panels, what we were able to do was develop a solar panel that is extremely price competitive with other technologies on the market,” Mull says. “We have focused on residential until now, but with this flat roof solution we will be adding commercial to our portfolio with a solution that offers two key benefits; first it leverages the same integrated technology as our residential products. And then it is also built and designed with lightweight material which is important in the commercial sector. It is only 2.7 pounds per square foot. That allows installers to place the panels on commercial buildings which do not typically have a lot of structural support to them. It is also designed to be ballasted in appropriate areas to avoid lift in a wind situation.”

Zep Solar

When it comes to installation, Zep Solar, operating out of San Rafael, also in the Golden State, is literally on the ‘leading edge’. Its patented groove design for the edge of a PV panel provides a comprehensive platform with an auto-grounding, drop-in mounting solution that greatly reduces installation time and material waste while enhancing the structural properties of solar arrays.

Michael Miskovsky, president, says that the founder and CTO of the company, Jack West, drew inspiration from years up on the roof doing solar installations: “What became clear was that aside from the actual installation time and labour involved, standard installation involves a surprising amount of materials needed to attach the modules to a roof or ground-mounted structure.

“All solar modules have a frame that looks very much like the aluminum railing used to mount them. And this framing has a substantial amount of structure and strength. So we decided to work with module manufacturers to redesign these frames so that they contain a groove or channel that runs along the outer edge of the module. While very simple in its implementation, this groove has very specific properties and dimensions that allow it to actually link with Zep's hardware – the hardware which allows very fast and efficient and aluminum rail-free mounting of the panels onto a roof or ground-mounted structure,” he adds.

The Zep System requires no rails, making it easier to ship, warehouse and install. Most importantly the actual channel allows designing in, installing and maintaining a grounding connection. The claim is that the Zep System can save 50% in installation costs and up to 75% in time and labour, which averages out to over US$0.50/Watt for an installed system. It is clearly working because Canadian Solar uses Zep's technology in its NewEdge modules. This innovation enabled Canadian Solar, in conjunction with Zep Solar, to be recognised as a top ten finalist for solar innovation by the Intersolar Award 2010 panel at Intersolar Europe, Munich, 2010.

And Trina Solar is soon to follow in these footsteps. “Trina will be using our design on a line of their modules they call Trinamount. This will come out in the second half of 2011 in the UK, the U.S. and Australia. Then they plan to move the line into a wider base in Europe,” Miskovsky says.

The companies in this article were talking to Joyce Laird.


About

Joyce Laird has an extensive background writing about the electronics industry; semiconductor development, R&D, wafer/foundry/IP and device integration into high density circuit designs.


Renewable Energy Focus, May/June 2011.

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Photovoltaics (PV)  •  Policy, investment and markets  •  Solar electricity

 

Comments

tomb62 said

21 October 2011
Great to see so much growth in the solar sector. The Top 5 Solar States also make interesting reading too http://www.solarpanelnews.co.uk/2011/09/top-5-us-solar-states/

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