Solaria raises $22M to lower cost of solar cell manufacturing

Solaria, a Fremont start-up that offers a way for solar cell manufacturers to lower costs by using less silicon, said it has raised $22 million in a second round of funding.

The funding comes from Q-Cells, the second largest producer of silicon solar cells, venture capital firms Sigma Partners and NGEN Partners, and Moser Baer, a large Indian manufacturer of CDs and DVDs.

Solaria’s emergence is significant because it wants to solve the solar industry’s biggest bottleneck: a severe shortage of silicon available to produce solar cells. Solaria’s timing is perfect. Through serendipity, it began working a way to produce more PV modules from the same amount of silicon back in 2003, before the silicon shortage began. Solaria uses standard solar chips, and unlike other players competing in the “concentration” area does not require its cells to “track,” or rotate to follow the sun. Silicon costs between $75 and $80 per kilogram for long-term contracts, which compares to just $26 per kg three years ago. If Solaria hits the market as planned by next year, and prices stay high, it is bound to have a thriving market.

Solaria CEO Suvi Sharma has proven he is a good fund-raiser. Previously, he founded and built Ivus, an early India-U.S. IT service company, with $12 million in backing in part from Silicon Valley firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson. He raised $5 million in 2003 from a group of individual investors, many of them in solar-friendly Europe. Solaria was founded back in 1999 by Leslie Danziger, who is chairman of Solaria.

There are other “concentration” technologies on the market, but most of them aim for ambitious rates of concentration of between ten and 30 times the regular concentration of light on cells. Solaria’s technology is less ambitious, targeting only two to three times regular concentration. Sharma says that’s what gives Solaria the ability to work with standard solar cells with no tracking.

When asked about competition, Sharma said once concern about companies developing “thin-film” solar technologies, paint-like products that are close to hitting the market, and which can be spread over large areas and using materials unrelated to silicon.

However, there are plenty of large potential customers, including Sharp and Q-Cells, producing masses of silicon solar cells. Q-Cells’ investment is a vote of confidence in the company. Moser Baer, India’s largest producer of CDs and DVDs, offers expertise in high-volume production processes, and its facilities will allow Solaria to outsource its production to Moser Baer, Sharma said. Moreover, Moser Baer has just entered the solar cell manufacturing business itself. It is building a factory that will produce 80 Megawatts a year — and so may also become a customer of Solaria’s.

This is venture firm Sigma’s first clean-tech deal.

Solaria has a pilot production facility here, and has 20 employees. It is hiring new engineering and operations professionals to its team.

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