19 Jun 2012
US Department of Energy hands largest chunk of its 'SUNPATH' funding to France-headquartered Soitec, and $5M to cell maker Solar Junction.
Soitec Solar, one of the world’s leading exponents of concentrated photovoltaics (CPV) technology, is set to receive a $25 million boost from the US Department of Energy (DOE).
The award, which remains subject to the completion of negotiations between the DOE and Soitec, is part of the “Scaling Up Nascent PV At Home” program, known as SUNPATH, which is seeking to increase US manufacturing competitiveness in the global solar market at a time when Chinese manufacturers of crystalline silicon PV modules are taking an ever larger market share.
Also awarded funding under the same scheme were the record-breaking cell developer Solar Junction ($5 million) and 1366 Technologies ($7 million), which is aiming to scale up its low-cost approach to silicon wafer production.
Though its parent company is based in Paris, France, Soitec Solar is currently building what is to become one of the first volume CPV module manufacturing facilities in San Diego, California, and the award is designed to help accelerate that build-out.
Setting up the new plant, which should become operational by the end of this year, is related to a series of deals in which Soitec agreed to supply thousands of modules for various utility-scale CPV farms that are being built nearby. The company has at least five separate power purchase agreements with key customer San Diego Gas & Electric.
The company is expecting the 176,000 square-foot San Diego facility to boast a manufacturing capacity of 200 MW (DC) once completed, and it will provide modules for more than 350 MW of CPV projects in the locality.
Each module uses a Fresnel lens to focus sunlight onto a small but very efficient multi-junction cell, and when deployed in locations that have suitably sunny climates CPV systems can provide one of the most cost-effective forms of solar electricity – particularly during the summer, when daytime energy costs spike because of the additional load caused by widespread air-conditioning.
“This SUNPATH award will accelerate the production and output of Soitec’s first large-scale CPV module manufacturing facility in San Diego,” said Clark Crawford, Soitec’s VP of sales and business development (USA), while his colleague Gaetan Borgers added:
“The decision of the DOE to award Soitec with the largest share of the SUNPATH award provides a strong endorsement of our CPV technology. [It] adds support to our view that CPV is best-suited for regions with extremely hot ambient temperatures and dry weather conditions like the American Southwest.”
30% module efficiency
Soitec says that its fifth-generation CPV modules, which will be produced in San Diego, will offer a conversion efficiency of 30% - more than twice what is possible with state-of-the-art crystalline silicon or thin-film modules.
The technology also relies on high-precision, dual-axis trackers to follow the Sun throughout the day. Each of Soitec’s tracker systems features multiple modules and provides a peak output of around 28 kW. Although this makes up-front system cost too expensive for consumers to contemplate, it does mean that the electricity output from a CPV system is maximized.
Provided that the systems are built in locations where sunshine is reliable and plentiful, like the desert areas of south-western US, north Africa or western China, the technology is seen as a viable option for utility-scale solar electricity generation.
Last year, Soitec agreed a deal with optics supplier Reflexite to produce the silicone-on-glass Fresnel lenses that feature in each module within the San Diego module facility. Just that lens production operation on its own is set to employ around 100 people at the site, out of a total 450 jobs being created there. Soitec says that more than 1000 direct and indirect jobs will be supported when the site is fully up and running.
Development costs stack up
Along with US rivals Amonix and SolFocus, Soitec is seen as spearheading the emergence of CPV, although that has come at a significant cost to its parent company, which is primarily focused on materials development and production for the semiconductor industry.
In Soitec’s most recent set of financial results, for the year that ended March 31, 2012, the company reported that its solar energy division made an operating loss of €44.9 million – on sales of just €6.8 million.
But those figures should start to improve towards the end of this year, as module shipments for a 50 MW CPV facility in South Africa and the Californian pipeline of 355 MW begin in earnest. The $25 million DOE award should help to expedite that revenue development, while Soitec says that it will continue to carry out significant investment to deliver revenue streams in financial year that begins in April 2013.