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SolarCity Aim: Most Vertically Integrated Solar Company In World

PV Solar Report
By Rosana Francescato

SolarCity Enters Manufacturing Business, With Goal of Becoming Most Vertically Integrated Solar Company in the World

SolarCity has announced its acquisition of Silevo, a solar technology and manufacturing company. The acquisition makes SolarCity a fully vertically integrated company, joining just a few others in the U.S.

SolarCity is looking to the future, and the company sees a bright future for solar power. The company is so confident about this that it’s decided to get into the panel-manufacturing business. Last week, SolarCity announced it’s acquiring Silevo, a solar technology and manufacturing company whose modules, it says, have achieved a unique combination of high energy output and low cost.

Why is this company, built on the solar leasing model, getting into manufacturing? The move was unusual enough that most details were left out of the press release and instead revealed in a blog post by SolarCity Chairman Elon Musk, Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Peter Rive, and Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Lyndon Rive. There, the executives explained that they intend to “combine what we believe is fundamentally the best photovoltaic technology with massive economies of scale to achieve a breakthrough in the cost of solar power.”

The blog post acknowledged that with today’s excess supply capacity, the move might seem counterintuitive. But the executives explained that they’re looking to the future: “Without decisive action to lay the groundwork today, the massive volume of affordable, high efficiency panels needed for unsubsidized solar power to outcompete fossil fuel grid power simply will not be there when it is needed.”

The acquisition follows the purchase last year of solar panel mounting system maker Zep Solar. That company had been one of SolarCity’s primary component suppliers before becoming an independent business unit of SolarCity. More recently, SolarCity entered into an agreement with REC Solar to purchase up to 240 MW of REC panels.

This new acquisition makes SolarCity a fully vertically integrated company, joining just a few others in the U.S. But the company doesn’t seem likely to stop there. “We will be the most vertically integrated solar company in the world,” said CTO Peter Rive about future plans, in a conference call. In the same call, Musk mentioned inverters and batteries as part of an “overall solution that gives someone electric power at a price that is less than if they were drawing it from fossil fuels burned over the grid.” Just a hint of things to come from SolarCity.

Silevo was already planning to build a manufacturing plant in New York, and SolarCity intends to see that plan through. The blog post noted, “At a targeted capacity greater than 1 GW within the next two years, it will be one of the single largest solar panel production plants in the world. This will be followed in subsequent years by one or more significantly larger plants at an order of magnitude greater annual production capacity.” Both Musk and Peter Rive mentioned R&D as part of the company’s future plans.

SolarCity will pay $200 million for Silevo, plus a possible $150 million more in stock later pending specific production goals being met.

Silevo says it achieves high conversion efficiencies of around 21%, using hybrid n-type-based tunnelling junction cell architecture. The company has a goal of achieving 24% efficiency in the next few years.

SolarCity is betting on this high efficiency at large scale to help meet its future demand. “We expect to be installing tens of gigawatts a year,” said Musk in the conference call.

As the company noted in the blog post, “Even if the solar industry were only to generate 40 percent of the world’s electricity with photovoltaics by 2040, that would mean installing more than 400 GW of solar capacity per year for the next 25 years. We absolutely believe that solar power can and will become the world’s predominant source of energy within our lifetimes, but there are obviously a lot of panels that have to be manufactured and installed in order for that to happen. The plans we are announcing today, while substantial compared to current industry, are small in that context.”

Source: PV Solar Report. Reproduced with permission.

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