Low cost solar innovator Siva Power has been making that case that scaling up is the key to restoring the USA as a manufacturing center for the global solar industry. It looks like the California-based company is getting a chance to prove it. Earlier this week, Siva announced that it has nailed down $5 million in financing to build its first pilot solar manufacturing line.
If the new facility delivers on Siva’s promise, it will pump out low cost, thin film solar modules that will accelerate the transition out of fossil fuel — and nuclear energy, for that matter.
Low Cost Solar Manufacturing Comes To The US, Finally
For those of you new to the topic, the US was a global solar manufacturing leader back when the solar market was relatively small. Once the market started booming and China entered the field, US solar factories were left behind in the dust.
Well, the dust may be clearing. The US Energy Department has been working with the domestic solar industry to come up with a fabrication-based approach to solar design, with the aim of developing low cost, high volume methods that counterbalance the advantages of imported solar panels.
That almost necessarily means ditching conventional silicon solar technology in favor of thin film. Solar cells that are fabricated in the form of film can be manufactured in a number of different high volume ways, using both new processes and the familiar roll-to-roll setup.
On top of the recent $5 million in private financing, last December Siva Power also won a $3 million award from the Energy Department to fine tune its co-evaporation fabrication process for manufacturing its copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) thin film technology.
Last year, Siva CEO Brad Mattson described how his company will combine the choice of materials, manufacturing process and scale to achieve a low cost thin film solar module:
A key element of reducing the cost is using glass as a substrate, which has already been scaled in the FPD industry. Much of the necessary equipment is essentially off-the-rack. By comparison, silicon as a substrate scales poorly because of the fragility of the wafer, and fabrication lines are unlikely to scale much more in the future…
To complement our choice of CIGS material and glass substrate, Siva Power has selected 300 MW as the best scale for module production, or about 10 times the capacity of the typical silicon production line. By taking advantage of the high-speed automated tools already developed for the FPD industry, only minimal adaptation is needed to achieve 300 MW throughputs…
As for whether or not this will significantly lower costs, Siva argues that the examples of the semiconductor and flat panel display industries provide ample evidence that the solar industry has been underperforming due to its focus on conventional silicon solar cell manufacturing.
Siva cites these figures from the flat panel industry:
The flat panel display (FPD) industry scaled from a Gen1 panel size of 370×470 mm (0.17 square meters) to the current standard (Gen 8.5) panel that is 2,200 x 2,600 mm (5.5 square meters) representing a 35X increase in panel area.
FPD is now migrating toward Gen10 glass measuring 3,000 x 3,000 mm or 9 square meters. Adapting Gen10 glass represents a 53X increase in substrate size.
New Solar Factor In California — #thanksobama!
The Energy Department’s contribution came through the agency’s SunShot solar R&D program. SunShot was created under the Bush Administration, but like other clean tech programs it languished for lack of funding. In 2011, President Obama finally put some muscle behind it and set a goal of achieving price parity between solar power and fossil fuels.
With the new funding in hand, Siva will indeed build a pilot plant based on its co-evaporation process, at its new headquarters in Santa Clara.
As an R&D facility, the new pilot plant will enable Siva to tweak the efficiency of its manufacturing process. The plan is to open at 40 cents per watt and bring it down to 28 cents per watt within two years.
By adding more production lines, Siva anticipates that costs could eventually go as low as 20 cents per watt. That’s far below the initial SunShot goal of $1.00 per watt, and it beats the cost of typical solar panels manufactured in China, which Siva estimates at about 50 cents per watt.
The pilot plant will also serve as a training ground for teams of Siva technicians, for deployment at the solar factories that the company plans to build around the world.
The global approach is the key to Siva’s business model, as Mattson explains:
Many countries, like India, Mexico, and Brazil, are rapidly expanding solar but want to buy locally manufactured panels. Siva Power can build its first factory in any of these countries and produce panels at half the cost of those made in China. Not only are locally produced Siva Power panels cheaper, but they also avoid tariffs, shipping costs, and create local jobs.
What About Nuclear Energy?
Coincidentally, earlier this week CleanTechnica also noted that billionaire tech pioneer and philanthropist Bill Gates is still arguing that nuclear energy is the only technology that can scale up in time to cut global carbon emissions and save the Earth from catastrophic climate change.
That’s an iffy proposition considering rapid growth in the wind and solar industries. With the Fukushima nuclear disaster still fresh in memory, the more likely scenario is that local communities will push back against new nuclear facilities, at least in the US and other countries where home rule is operative.
Meanwhile, as Siva demonstrates, there is still ample room for costs to drop in the solar industry. Add the growth of energy storage, new transmission lines, distributed generation, and smart grid technology into the mix, and it looks like the top-down model of nuclear energy will have a tough time competing.
On the other hand, the Energy Department’s ARPA-E funding agency is still very much interested in developing small scale, one-megawatt nuclear modules, so stay tuned for that.
[The Santa Clara facility is a pilot line. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Santa Clara facility will be a 300-megawatt plant.]
Image: via Siva Power.