Modern Solar Technologies Shading Out Silicon Solar Panels
NEW YORK, New York, November 10, 2009 (ENS) – A silicon solar panel manufacturer has announced plans to close its U.S. plant, another is moving production to China, and a third is downsizing.
All three companies are switching to more modern technology in a business climate of inventory buildup and overcapacity for crystalline silicon solar panels and industry pricing below the cost of producing the familiar panels that are the basis for most solar installations in the United States.
General Electric announced its plans to stop manufacturing crystalline silicon panels at its plant in Newark, Delaware at the end of the year and close the plant by the end of June 2010, laying off 82 employees.
The company said in a statement that “current challenges in the solar industry, including industry pricing that is below the cost of manufacture” is responsible for the closure.
GE says it will shift resources away from crystalline silicon modules to focus on inverter and thin film solar technologies. Thin film solar is cheaper than traditional solar technology because it uses little or no silicon, but a variety of thin film technologies have proved difficult to commercialize.
Nanosolar thin-film panels (Photo courtesy Nanosolar)
Now, makers of old-fashioned silicon solar panels must now compete with companies such as Nanosolar, which in September began printing cheap solar cells on metal foil. Nanosolar’s technology relies on sandwiches of copper, indium, gallium and selenide that are 100 times thinner than silicon solar cells and achieve the holy grail of $1 per watt of a panel’s capacity – cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels.
Another company, Evergreen Solar, has announced it will stop making solar panels at its brand-new Devens, Massachusetts plant. In July 2008, Evergreen opened the Devens manufacturing facility with $44 million in state incentives.
Now, Evergreen wants to focus on developing its String Ribbon solar power products with its proprietary, low-cost, silicon wafer technology for residential and commercial applications. Evergreen will continue to produce String Ribbon solar wafers and cells at the Devens plant, but panel assembly will relocate to China.
Silicon wafers are the basis of solar cells and most solar panels made today. Conventional technologies for producing silicon wafers are based on energy-intensive casting and oil-based machining and cutting of large silicon blocks.
Evergreen’s String Ribbon wafers are made by forming a thin film of silicon between two parallel high-temperature filaments. The long filaments unwind from spools, run through the molten silicon and pull a long strip of silicon out of the melt. The wafer strip is harvested periodically and cut into smaller pieces for processing into solar cells.
Evergreen says a 30 percent price drop for crystalline silicon solar panels over the past year has made it tough to stay cost competitive in the United States.
Evergreen solar panels on a building in Randolph, Massachusetts (Photo courtesy Evergreen Solar)
Starting in 2010, Evergreen Solar will manufacture its String Ribbon wafers using state of the art furnaces at a leased facility being constructed in Wuhan, China on the campus of Jiawei Solar (Wuhan) Co. Jiawei will process String Ribbon wafers into Evergreen Solar-branded panels on a subcontract basis.
Richard Feldt, Evergreen Solar chairman, president and CEO, said, “When you combine Evergreen Solar’s unique wafer technology and Jiawei’s high quality, cost efficient cell and panel conversion processes, we believe we have a winning formula that will produce the best performing and lowest cost multi-crystalline solar panels in the world.”
BP Solar is downsizing one of its U.S. facilities as it attempts to reduce its unit costs by 25 percent by the end of 2010. In March, the British firm said it would end module assembly at its plant in Frederick, Maryland, although silicon casting, wafering, sizing and solar cell production will continue.
“This comes at a time when solar markets are unsettled by the impact of the global economic environment, an over-supplied market and increased competition,” said Reyad Fezzani, CEO of BP Solar.
Commenting on the long term prospects for the solar market in the United States, Fezzani said, “The U.S. has undoubted potential to become the world’s largest solar market. BP Solar will deliver high-quality solar systems with the lowest lifetime cost of electricity to U.S. customers.”
“We believe that a growing market is the way to create material solar-related jobs,” said Fezzani, “and three in every four of those jobs will be in downstream distribution, construction, installation, financing and other support services.”