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Soitec sets up Fresnel lens JV with Reflexite

16 Nov 2011

Agreement with optics firm follows approval for five large-scale concentrated photovoltaics projects in southern California.

Following official approval of a series of major concentrated photovoltaics (CPV) projects by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), Soitec’s solar energy division is setting up a joint-venture with Reflexite to manufacture Fresnel lenses at its new module assembly facility to be built in southern California.

Soitec announced last week that five separate CPV power purchase agreements with customer San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), with a combined peak electricity generating capacity of 155 MW, had gained approval – while the CPUC also approved the right to purchase additional capacity if desired.

Those power plants will become some of the largest CPV sites in the world when completed (the largest currently under construction is a 30 MW site in Colorado based on Amonix systems) and to support the build-out, Soitec is to construct a local module assembly facility that will employ up to 450 people.

Soitec says that it will shortly acquire an industrial building in the San Diego region and purchase equipment to support an annual assembly capacity of 100 MW there. That capacity could subsequently be doubled to 200 MW, depending on the confirmation of other CPV projects that are in the pipeline. The exact location of the facility will be confirmed by the end of this year.

Gen 5 technology
The San Diego site will use Soitec’s latest, fifth-generation concentrator design, which is said to deliver a module efficiency of more than 30% with a concentration of around 500 suns – a level that is far in excess of even the most advanced research-level monocrystalline silicon cells, thanks to the world-leading performance of multi-junction cells based on compound semiconductors.

The fifth-generation systems are based around 28 kW trackers. Each tracker unit is comprised of twelve CPV modules, and the trackers can be integrated into 1 MW (peak) generating blocks sharing just a pair of inverters to minimize costs. Those figures suggest that some 66,000 cells and modules would be needed to support just the 155 MW approved by the CPUC.

One of the key elements of each and every module will be a Fresnel lens to concentrate sunlight efficiently onto the high-performance multi-junction cells that convert the light into electricity, and Soitec has now set up a new joint venture to produce the optics.

The company is teaming up with long-time supplier Reflexite Energy Solutions to create Reflexite Soitec Optical Technologies, which will produce the silicone-on-glass Fresnel lenses for the new modules at what is described as a “fab within a fab” at Soitec’s forthcoming San Diego site. “Soitec and Reflexite are currently collaborating on the design of the area of the factory to be dedicated to the joint venture, which will employ approximately 100 people,” said the companies in a statement announcing the deal.

Soitec’s CEO André Jacques Auberton-Hervé added that the joint venture would be unique within the CPV industry, representing both a technological collaboration and an innovative economic solution in what is an increasingly competitive solar market. As well as manufacturing lenses, the venture will also develop next-generation technologies to further increase efficiency and reduce the cost of the optics.

“By working together under the same roof, we can ensure the continuous supply of superior-quality lens plates at the most competitive cost, and our future product development programs will be much more efficient by working in such close proximity,” Auberton-Hervé said.

Reflexite CEO Michael Foley added: “We are sure that by co-locating our optics facility with their CPV module assembly facility we will have the best possible logistics and even closer collaboration in the future. We want to make sure we do our part to support Soitec’s efforts to serve the US utility scale solar market.”

CPV development costs
While the CPUC approval represents a major commercial breakthrough for Soitec in the US, the company’s latest financial results demonstrate just what an impact the development of its solar division is having on its bottom line.

Soitec’s main activity remains the production of wafer materials for the semiconductor industry – aside from its advanced silicon wafer technology, a pilot line at the firm’s Bernin, France, site provides substrates for both solar cell and LED wafer production – and that part of the business delivered an operating profit of €8.8 million in the first six months of Soitec’s 2011-2012 financial year.

However, the solar division is yet to deliver any meaningful revenues, meaning that it is effectively being subsidized by the rest of the company. In the latest half-year, the solar division made an operating loss of €17.3 million, dragging down Soitec to a net loss of €12.9 million on sales of €162.2 million.

But with the CPUC approvals now in place, Soitec said that it would “immediately implement the investment program relating to set up [of] its solar system production and assembly capacities”, including the acquisition of its San Diego production site. The company has already invested in growing production capacity at Soitec’s current facility in Freiburg, Germany, which is set to reach 80 MW in mid-2012.

Soitec raised €150 million in a right issue earlier this year, a move designed in part to aid the expansion of its solar energy activity. Following that rights issue, the Fonds Stratégique d’Investissement - an investment group that is half-owned by the French government - became a significant owner of Soitec's stock, with 8.3% of the company's capital.

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