Summary:

Intel is known for its ability to roll out chips speedily in giant factories. Can that knowledge help a solar startup? MiaSole announced Tuesday that it has enlisted the chip giant to help the company scale up its thin-film solar production.

Thin Film Solar Underdog MiaSole Looks Ahead to New Plant, Solar Shingles

Intel is known for its manufacturing might, and its ability to roll out chips speedily in giant factories. Can that knowledge help a solar startup? MiaSole announced Tuesday it has enlisted the chip giant to help the company scale up its thin-film solar production.

Eight Intel folks have been embedded at MiaSole’s two factories in Silicon Valley since last month to provide advice and employee training, said Rob DeLine, VP of marketing at MiaSole. MiaSole makes solar panels using copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS), a combination that requires precise layering and distribution of the materials to achieved desired efficiencies. CIGS panels have the potential to rival the more popular silicon panels in efficiency and price, but the vast majority of CIGS companies are small and in the process of working on beefing up their manufacturing operations.

Turning to Intel for consultation seems unusual, given Intel isn’t a solar manufacturer, though it has invested in some solar production, including another CIGS solar panel manufacturer in Germany: Surfurcell. There are some similarities between chips and solar panels, mainly, that they rely primarily on silicon wafers as the building block. Chips are, in fact, much more complex to engineer and make.

Though making solar cells and assembling them into panels is more simple than making chips, scaling up a solar factory is no easy task. Plenty of companies have learned that controlling the quality and consistency of their production can take far longer than expected.

DeLine made it clear the Intel experts aren’t stationed at MiaSole to help MiaSole tinker with its core technology of making CIGS solar cells. Instead, the experts will offer a slew of recommendations for key areas of factory efficiency that may not be obvious to those who aren’t familiar with manufacturing in general.

“Regardless of the product types, anybody who is in high volume manufacturing faces some common issues, such as tool uptime, how fast you do preventive maintenance and when and how you do (employee) shift changes,” DeLine said. “We are delighted and absolutely thrilled to be able to learn from one of the best regarded manufacturers in any industry.”

With Intel’s help, MiaSole hopes to speed up its near-term plan to boost production and lower costs. MiaSole has about 50 MW of annual production capacity and expects to cross over 150 MW by the end of this year, DeLine said. MiaSole hopes the chip giant’s advice can help it achieve that year-end goal earlier rather than later in the fourth quarter, he added. The contract with Intel will last through 2012, and the companies aren’t disclosing financial terms of the contract.

MiaSole shipped 22 MW of solar panels in 2010 and expects to ship over 80 MW in 2011, then more than 200 MW in 2012, DeLine said. The company’s large customers include Germany-based Juwi Solar, which signed a 600MW supply agreement last year. MiaSole also inked a supply deal with SolarCity to install its panels on Walmart  stores last year; MiaSole has completed the 5 MW delivery and expects “further opportunity in 2011,” DeLine said.

Make or Break Time

MiaSole is at a critical juncture where it needs to boost its production capacity and speed quickly. The company has had its share of struggles developing a technology that can rival others in efficiency and start developing it in large volumes. The current CEO, Joseph Laia, took over in 2007 to fix these problems, and the company hunkered down for about a year before announcing new progress. The company didn’t start commercial shipment until October 2009, Laia told me.

While MiaSole works out its kinks, the solar market has grown quickly and attracted the entrance of well-funded manufacturers who have built factories in the hundreds of megawatts. Several of the top 10 manufacturers in the world today make silicon panels and boast more than 1 GW of production capacity. Many of MiaSole’s fellow CIGS solar panel producers are working on building larger factories. Stion, for example, is working on a 100 MW factory in Mississippi. SoloPower is planning a factory in Oregon that eventually could reach 400 MW of annual capacity.

MiaSole previously has set a goal of reaching a manufacturing cost of 85 cents per watt, which it believes it could hit when it reaches 120 MW of production capacity, DeLine said. The company previously had hoped to reach that by the end of 2010. MiaSole and its peers are chasing after First Solar, which claims to have the lowest manufacturing cost and achieved 75 cents per watt by the end of 2010. But it reached that figure with 1.4 GW of factories. Incidentally, First Solar’s manufacturing operation has grown under the watch of a former Intel executive, Bruce Sohn, who’s leaving the solar company at the end of the month.

MiaSole, which had been making solar panels with 10.5 percent efficiency for some time, began shipping panels with higher efficiency this month, DeLine said. While he declined to say how efficient, DeLine said the panels are more efficient than the 11.6 percent panels achieved by First Solar by the end of 2010.

MiaSole last raised a $106 million round in the fourth quarter of last year, DeLine said. The company is reportedly looking to go public as early as this year. DeLine said MiaSole’s managers and investors have been thinking about doing an IPO but the company isn’t saying more at this point.

Photo courtesy of MiaSole

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