Solar Frontier: From Japan, With Love and a Big Gun

I just wrapped up my first interview at Intersolar in San Francisco, a good chat with Greg Ashley, VP/COO of Solar Frontier Americas. Greg is new to his post for the Japanese company (Solar Frontier is owned by Showa Shell), but he’s a veteran in the solar industry. He previously worked at Canadian Solar and SunEdison. And he was there in the early 1980s, when the solar market seemed like it could take off and he was involved in the solar water heater business.

Greg Ashley

Although he’s no stranger to the market, he is still learning about the technical aspects of Solar Frontier’s manufacturing operations. Unlike Canadian Solar, which makes crystalline silicon solar modules, Solar Frontier makes modules using copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS). Interestingly, the company prefers to use the term “CIS” on its website instead of CIGS. Greg says the company uses only a little bit of gallium. The company began its research of this type of thin-film solar technology in 1993.

Solar Frontier stands out among the CIGS players because the company is building a 900-megawatt factory, its third, in Miyazaki, Japan. It already has a 20-megawatt and a 60-megawatt factory. Those numbers should inspire some awe because the vast majority of CIGS companies worldwide have factories less than 100 megawatts of production capacities, with some in the pilot stages and running factories far less than 100 megawatts. I wrote a story for Earth2tech about the importance of crossing the 100-megawatt threshold when Stion, a Silicon Valley startup backed by investors such as Vinod Khosla, announced its factory expansion plan last month. Stion was in the process of expanding its production from 5-megawatt to 10-megawatt, and it expects to reach 100-megawatt over the next year.

Greg tells me that Solar Frontier is installing equipment in its new factory now and plans to start rolling out CIGS panels in September. Mass production should begin next spring. You will learn more about my conversation with Greg in an upcoming story for RenewableEnergyWorld.com.

Solar Frontier’s biggest competitors aren’t going to be other CIGS panel makers. Reaching the 1-gigawatt mark would make Solar Frontier a formidable rival against top solar panel makers globally, most of which use crystalline silicon as the key ingredient for converting sunlight into electricity. And then there is First Solar, which makes cadmium-telluride solar panels and was the biggest manufacturers in 2009, in terms of production (as opposed to factory capacity).

UPDATE: Here is my story on CIGS and a video interview with Greg at RenewableEnergyWorld.com.

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2 Responses to Solar Frontier: From Japan, With Love and a Big Gun

  1. ECD Fan says:

    You should have asked two questions: 1) What would be the module efficiency, and 2) What would be the cost of manufacturing? Everything else is just fluff. Note that a 12% efficient module (the efficiency that Frontier has been guiding for 2011) will have to have manufacturing cost of 90c per Watt TODAY to be competitive! Whether Frontier reaches 1GW or not, it is irrelevant, unless they can get their cost structure in order.

  2. Ucilia Wang says:

    Hi ECD Fan, good to meet you on this forum. I did, in fact, ask the two questions you mentioned. I’m saving the cost and pricing discussion for my story that will appear in RenewableEnergyWorld.com. But thanks for reminding me that I should at least let people know I’ve asked certain key questions. I’ll point to this story that contains the company’s efficiency roadmap: http://techon.nikkeibp.co.jp/english/NEWS_EN/20100309/180943/.

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