The Department of Energy has granted a $197 million loan guarantee to SoloPower for the building of a thin-film solar panel manufacturing facility in Wilsonville, Ore.
This marks a big win for SoloPower, which is coming off several weeks of progress related to the plant. In January, the company raised $51 million in a fourth round of funding, then announced the Oregon Department of Energy granted it a $20 million loan. It also shows the potential for future successes in CIGS technology, named for its ingredients of copper, indium, gallium and selenide. One of SoloPower’s flexible CIGS panels is shown below.
The funds will go towards retrofitting an existing building and purchasing equipment for a $340 million facility with an annual capacity of 400 megawatts, according to the announcement today. However, a SoloPower statement last month said the plant would have a capacity of 300 megawatts — we’ve contacted SoloPower’s representatives to clear up the discrepancy and will update the story once we hear back. (Update: From company spokeswoman Julie Lydon: “The 400 megawatt number is correct. Before, we were being conservative. We’re building four 75-megawatt lines in the facility and we have efficiencies that will enable us to produce 100 megawatts off of each line.”)
Currently, the most common solar photovoltaic technology is crystalline silicon, but Chinese companies have recently taken an edge in that area, driving prices down across the board. Thin-film solar companies have lower efficiency rates and seemed to struggle last year in some high-profile ways, like the closure of Solyndra’s first facility and the shutdown of Applied Materials and Suntech’s thin-film solar lines. The one exception is industry leader First Solar, a well-respected behemoth maker of cadmium telluride thin-film panels at low costs.
However, thin-film panels have seen a resurgence lately, with SoloPower, Stion and AQT all announcing plans for new factories, and CIGS technology in particular looks promising. Its efficiency rates are in the mid- to high teens — nearing 20 percent — which make them more comparable to crystalline silicon (20 to 25 percent) than other thin film technologies, which have efficiency rates around 11 percent.
“CIGS are the real up and comer,” says Matt Feinstein, an analyst for Lux Research. “Their costs are going to fall very dramatically. We’re starting to see them get more mature.”
They also have the potential to be sputtered onto flexible materials and even integrated into buildings. SoloPower will be one of the first companies to test developers’ appetites for flexible CIGS, and whether customers be willing to consider paying a premium for flexible CIGS panels. While CIGS technology is generally considered bankable, the technology is still new compared to crystalline silicon, so companies will have to demonstrate bankability of their panels and prove they can last for about 25 years in real-world conditions.
SoloPower says its secret sauce is a low-cost, highly efficient electroplating manufacturing process. Its manufacturing process works by depositing copper, indium, gallium and selenide on rolls of flexible stainless steel materials and transforms them into flexible modules. According to the DOE, that allows the company to improve module size and weight, ease of installation, and reduces mounting hardware.
The SoloPower plant’s first phase of construction will cover a 75-megawatt manufacturing line and create 170 jobs, the company said. The final facility will produce 500 permanent jobs.
[Top image via Flickr/Roberto Verzo]