Is Solexant Hitting 10% Efficiency?

Solexant is the latest thin film solar startup to line up some nice government subsidies for building a new factory. I wrote about its basic plan for a 100-megawatt plant near Portland, Ore., in today’s DailyFinance.

Before I wrote the story, I asked Solexant’s CEO Damoder Reddy for more information about the company, particularly since I saw his presentation at a Dow Jones conference last December. At the time, Damoder said his startup had just completed a 2-megawatt pilot line and raised two rounds totaling $22.5 million. The company had 34 employees plus six contractors.

The company, which has since raised a new round of $41.5 million, is using a rather novel technology first developed at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. The process involves printing cadmium-telluride nanocrystals on rolls of flexible metal foil. This method is different from the cadmium-telluride solar panels made by First Solar, which deposits cadmium-telluride on sheets of glass. The roll-to-roll process is supposed to be faster – and presumably cheaper – than putting materials on pieces of glass in a conveyor belt-kind of process.

I asked Damoder by email about the size of the panels rolling out of the pilot line and their efficiencies. A pilot line is where you test your manufacturing process to make sure it’s sound enough for you to start mass production. It’s also where you assess whether the solar panels could hit the efficiencies you were expecting when you were in the research and development stages.

Damoder was coy. Well, he was willing to divulge that the pilot line is producing 1.2 square-meter panels. But he wouldn’t tell me the power rating of the panels or any efficiency numbers. He wrote that the factory in Oregon would roll out 2-square-meter panels with over 200-watt of power ratings after it starts mass production (a factory takes time, usually about 6-9 months, to go from initial production to mass production).

At the Dow Jones conference, Damoder said he was expecting the pilot line to produce panels with more than 10 percent efficiencies. He also showed a chart projecting some sort of savings if a project developer decided to pick Solexant’s panels over First Solar’s. The chart showed that a 10-megawatt power project would require 106,000 First Solar panels but only 33,660 Solexant panels. The cost would be $1.5 million versus $900,000.

During the first quarter of this year, First Solar was churning out panels with 11.1 efficiency, at a manufacturing cost of $0.81 per watt.

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Carbon Footprint and Solar: Search for Studies

Dale Chihuly's "The Sun" at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Ariz.

I’ve been asking around for references to any life-cycle analysis of a solar power plant. Many executives I’ve talked to at Intersolar in San Francisco say they haven’t seen any. Jason Liu, vice president of Yingli Green Energy, tells me the company has done such an assessment, but the numbers aren’t verified by an independent source, so they aren’t available publicly.

I started to wonder about life cycle analysis of solar manufacturing and power plant operations after reading a Pacific Gas and Electric blog post last month that talked about the utility’s effort to study the carbon footprint of the products and services it buys. I asked PG&E about the assessment, and I got an email from Fiona Chan. Fiona said the utility, UC Berkeley and Climate Earth began the assessment on June 1 this year, and they expect to complete it in about a year. PG&E launched a “green supply chain program” last year.

Companies don’t do carbon footprint analyses just for fun. Whatever results they get from the reports will influence their buying decisions, and that in turn could have a big impact on their suppliers. When WalMart announced in July last year that it would start to ask its suppliers to track their greenhouse gas emissions, many of these suppliers were worried about fulfilling the requirement. Earlier this year, WalMart set a goal of getting rid of 20 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing and transporting the products they sell by 2015.

The United States has no national regulations requiring companies, be they power plant operators or retailers, to track their greenhouse gas emissions. Federal lawmakers certainly have debated over a proposal to cap emissions and penalize those who emit more than allowed. But the proposal is controversial and faces no shortage of opposition from heavy polluters and their Congressional representatives.

I have found some carbon footprint studies on solar. A 2008 study led by Brookhaven National Laboratory looked at four types of solar panel-based systems: multicrystalline silicon, monocrystalline silicon, ribbon silicon and cadmium-telluride. Here is an excerpt from the summary:

“Among the current vintage of PV technologies, thin-film cadmium telluride (CdTe) PV emits the least amount of harmful air emissions as it requires the least amount of energy during the module production. However, the differences in the emissions between different PV technologies are very small in comparison to the emissions from conventional energy technologies that PV could displace … At least 89% of air emissions associated with electricity generation could be prevented if electricity from photovoltaics displaces electricity from the grid.”

Here is a link to a 2006 study by the University of Michigan on a 33-kilowatt system, which was made up of multicrystalline silicon solar panels from Kyocera and amorphous-silicon thin films from Uni-Solar. You should try to read the whole paper to get the details, but here is one of the conclusions:

“These results demonstrate that multi-crystalline modules are more energy intensive when compared to thin film laminates.”

There is a life cycle analysis of crystalline silicon solar panels on a website. It’s only three pages and has an easy-to-read table showing the results. One of the conclusions is that, over their lifetime, “crystalline silicon solar panels generate 9-17 times the energy required to produce them.”

And finally, here is a link to the International Energy Agency’s 2009 guide for carrying out a life cycle analysis of solar electricity.

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Solar, Advertising and a Fake Oil Tycoon

The biggest story from the first day of Intersolar in San Francisco yesterday was the appearance of Larry Hagman, who played a Texas oilman on an old soap opera “Dallas,” at a SolarWorld press event (see the video). That is, if you judge by the ranking and number of stories on Google News last night. Almost all other Intersolar-related news came in the form of press releases.

While SolarWorld’s choice for its new spokesman has spawned this post on Greentech Media poking fun of it all, it does make you wonder whether branding campaigns are worth the investments for solar panel makers. Yingli Green Energy has gotten a lot of press for its sponsorship of the most recent World Cup, where you couldn’t miss the Chinese solar panel maker’s name when you watched the games. Sharp and SunPower also have launched marketing campaigns.

I’m interested to see whether these advertising efforts work. Who are the targeted audiences? When you put ads in sporting events, are you targeting mostly men, and are men more likely to be making purchasing decisions for solar energy?

I caught up with Matt Ziskin at SunWize, a distributor and installer of solar electric equipment this morning, and I asked him whether consumers have any brand awareness. He said home and business owners don’t ask for certain brands of solar panels and rely on recommendations from their installers. This is probably not surprising given that solar energy is starting to become vogue in the United States only in the last few years. Ziskin noted that, in the residential market, men are typically the ones to make the first calls to SunWize to discuss buying a solar energy system. But women typically join the men in discussing the purchases when SunWize employees make the sales calls.

By the way, here is a good story in PV Magazine’s website from my fellow solar writer, Jennifer Kho, who interviewed several companies at Intersolar yesterday and got some scoops.

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My Initiation Into the World of Solar Mounting Systems


A demo at the Unirac booth

I have spent half of the day talking to U.S-based mounting system companies at Intersolar in San Francisco. Yes, it’s not a sexy topic. How hard can it be to engineer a pile of aluminum or steel with bolts and hooks and other stuff to prop up solar panels? It turns out that designing a good and cost effective rack isn’t so easy. The rack has to last for a few decades at least and be built in a way that makes the solar array wind resistant (and able to bear the weight of the snow, in some cases).

Here are some of the factors to consider:

  • Dimensions of the solar panels.
  • Framed v. frameless panels.
  • Location of the installation: slanted roof, flat roof or on the ground.
  • Tilting: how easy is it to adjust the tilt of the solar panels.
  • The height between the ground and the solar panels.
  • Types of materials: mostly aluminum versus steel.
  • Ease of installation: how many moving parts are in the setup and how quickly can they be assembled and fitted with solar panels.

I talked to SunLink, Unirac, Panel Claw, Copper B-Line, IronRidge, Unistrut Energy Solutions. I have a lot of homework to do to learn more about their designs and product deployment. A few companies have shared some cost figures, which I will not mention them here for now. I want to get more numbers and do some fact checking in order to have a better discussion on costs in a story that I’ll write for PV Magazine (you can pick up a copy of the monthly at booth 9930, Level 3, at the conference). Installation can account for as much a 50 percent of the labor and material costs of a project.

Some of the companies, such as SunLink and PanelClaw, launched designs for ground-mounted projects only last year to target the utility market (they had rooftop products before that). Many American utilities, such as the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Southern California Edison, have signed large contracts to buy solar electricity from project developers/owners. In fact, more than half of the states require their utilities to sell renewable energy, though the electricity also could come from wind farms, geothermal fields, biomass power plants or other sources.

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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

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

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Solar Market: From Gloom to Boom

I remembered the rather depressed mood at Intersolar in San Francisco a year ago, when manufacturers and project developers were scrambling to cope with the recession and the big cutback in government subsidies in Spain. Some companies posted losses and reduced production. Many renegotiated contracts with silicon and other suppliers. LDK Solar, a silicon wafer maker in  China, posted negative 90% gross margin.

We all know by now that the gloom lifted when Germany went on overdrive to install solar power projects ahead of an anticipated cut in its government incentives. Before we knew it, the country had added several gigawatts in 2009 and shattered expectations.

Today, IMS Research reports that solar panel shipment in the second quarter reached 3.7 gigawatts, generating $7.1 billion in revenue. You can read more about the data in my DailyFinance story today.

You can expect a lot more talks about market forecasts, product launches and partnerships at Intersolar in San Francisco this week. I’ll be there, so stay tuned for posts about major players and startup companies vying for attention from customers, investors and the media.

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The “Why I’m Doing This” Post

During my near three-month trip through Asia earlier this year (see photo slide below), I met many American and European travelers who wondered how I got a job writing about renewable energy. They posed the question in a tone that I would use when I want to know how someone managed to land a great assignment. Renewable energy is an emerging field that promises great opportunities for job seekers and a switch to sustainable sources of electricity and fuels. I have always been fond of writing about environmental issues, and one of my former jobs as a newspaper reporter in Northern California let me write about many dramas over timber harvesting, wine-grape growing, water rights and land conservation.

So much private and government money has been invested in a wide range of greentech technology development and manufacturing in recent years. But it’s too early to say whether these investments will change our lives – will they prompt us to conserve more energy, use cleaner sources of electricity and cut our reliance on fossil fuels for decades or hundreds of years? I feel lucky to be able to witness and chronicle this movement.

This blog will allow me to do more of that. As a freelance writer, I get to tackle technical subjects for monthly PV Magazine, feature stories for and consumer-friendly articles for the DailyFinance, part of AOL. But the blog will not be used only to highlight my stories in these publications. You will find fresh content – tidbits from interviews that aren’t a good fit for a freelance piece, observations at conferences and other industry events and personalities that shape various greentech sectors.

I’ll hope you’ll enjoy reading my posts as much as I will writing them.

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