Are there still opportunities for tech innovation for solar cells, now that solar panels are rapidly becoming commoditized? California startup Silevo thinks it has a shot with a hybrid solar cell design and a business strategy that involves building its very first factory, not in the U.S. but in China.
The Fremont, Calif., company, founded in 2007, said Wednesday that it’s ready to talk publicly about its technology and manufacturing plans for the first time. Silevo has raised $55 million in venture capital from investors, including three China-based firms: DT Capital (affiliated with Madrone Capital), NewMargin Ventures, and GSR Ventures (connected to Mayfield Fund), said Chris Beitel, VP of business development and marketing at Silevo.
Silevo also claims to have “the industry’s best cost-to-performance ratio” for solar panels, but we’ll see if that proves out in the market place. Silevo is in the process of building a 30 MW factory in Hangzhou, China, and expects to bring the factory into full production mode during the first quarter of 2012. The company plans to add another 200 MW in 2013 if demand is there. Beitel declined to discuss whether the company has customers at this stage.
The startup does have something novel to offer compared to conventional solar cells, which use silicon to convert sunlight into electricity. Silevo’s technology still uses silicon in part, but it also relies on different materials for other cell components to squeeze more energy out of the system and to improve the cell’s efficiency. The company uses single-crystal silicon as the substrate, the base layer on which it adds a “tunneling oxide layer” and a layer of amorphous silicon to alter the voltage and current of the cells.
“We think this is the first hybrid type of device where we couple all of the three key materials,” Beitel said.
Amorphous-silicon has been used as the main material in solar cells for decades, and plenty of venture capital money has gone into startups to produce solar panels containing strictly amorphous-silicon cells. But amorphous-silicon alone produces far less electricity than cells that use only silicon or even other alternative materials. Applied Materials last year axed a division that launched its first factory equipment for making amorphous-silicon panels in 2007. Beitel was an executive at that Applied division.
To lower manufacturing cost, Silevo is opting for copper instead of silver for the ultra-thin lines on solar cells that ferry the electricity out and across solar cells. Silver, the No. 2 most costly component after silicon in a conventional solar cell, has gotten expensive, Beitel said. Suntech Power, which makes silicon solar panels, also uses copper for its newer, Pluto line of products.
Silevo has been able to produce the typical, 5-inch square solar cells that get around 20-21 percent efficiency, Beitel said. That figure would be just under the most efficient silicon solar cells on the market today: 22 percent cells from SunPower. At more than 20 percent efficient, Silevo’s cells are certainly impressive. Most solar cells being sold today are in the mid- to high-teens.
Making a leap to mass production
But being able to produce cells on an 1 MW pilot line is quite different from the much more difficult task of mass-producing them in a large factory. Whether Silevo can produce the same, highly efficient cells in large volumes remains to be seen. Plus, the price for silicon solar panels has fallen dramatically – 40 percent by some accounts – so far this year because changes to government incentives in Europe slowed down the installation rate and caused a pileup of solar panels in warehouses.
Some silicon solar panel makers are selling their products at $1.10 per watt when they need to sell them for more than $2 per watt to make a healthy profit, said Paula Mints, director of energy at Navigant Consulting, during a webinar last month. At $1.10 per watt, the manufacturers are likely selling the panels at a loss.
“We believe that our technology, right out of the gate, even at a small manufacturing scale, will be very competitive with traditional players that already have ramped to 1 GW scale,” Beitel said. At 1 GW, Silevo expects its production cost to fall to $0.69 per watt.
The company is getting some financial help from the local government in China to fund to build the factory. Silevo’s co-founder and CEO, Zheng Xu, has used his connections in China to help secure a financial package that includes tax breaks, grants and land, Beitel said. Building the factory in China will be $0.18-$0.20 cents per watt lower than building the factory in the U.S., Beitel said.
Images courtesy of Silevo