Solar Manufacturers: More Solar Robots, Less Green Jobs

Everyone and their mother are touting the benefits of more green jobs on the world’s economies. That is, unless you happen to be part of a clean power or energy efficiency firm that is actually making a product — then more automation in the production process, i.e., fewer employees, ultimately means lower costs. While the process of manufacturing solar systems is mostly automated, solar companies at the Intersolar conference in San Francisco on Monday emphasized that solar production needs to incorporate even more automation technology, which would eliminate jobs and bring down the price of solar systems.

Dick Swanson, SunPower’s (s SPWR) president, detailed how many jobs it takes to complete portions of the solar production supply chain — and how many the industry can eliminate through more automation. To produce 1 GW of solar power capacity per year, Swanson says, it takes 250 to 500 jobs to produce the polysilicon, 250 to 500 jobs for the ingots, 3,000 to 6,000 for the solar cells, 1,500 to 3,000 for the panel lamination, and 2,500 to 5,000 for the solar system integration. In total that means between 8,000 and 16,000 jobs are needed per 1 GW of solar photovoltaic capacity. So if the world solar capacity can reach 500 GW per year, Swanson says, that’s the equivalent (on the low end) of 4 million jobs.

But with more automation processing, Swanson says the solar industry can cut the amount of human labor needed dramatically: down to 1 million jobs for a capacity of 500 GW per year, or a cut of 75 percent. That’s not going to make the green jobs advocates very happy.

Richard Chleboski, vice president of Strategy and Business Development for Evergreen Solar (s ESLR), gave a quick example of the kinds of solar power factory jobs that can be eliminated. In an older solar manufacturing process, Evergreen Solar used one employee to cut off a block of a solar wafer and carry it to another part of the production process. (The solar execs in the room chuckled when Chleboski showed a video of an employee awkwardly carrying the bulky wafer to the next step.) But Evergreen’s newer technology uses a laser to cut the wafer, and robotics take the wafer to the next stage. (Watch these for some awesome solar robots videos.)

To deliver the necessary automation that can cut costs and bring solar down to grid parity, the solar execs also said that the industry needs to take more cues from the semiconductor sector, which has a long history of low-cost manufacturing using robotics, and automated feedback and process controls. Stephen Swanson, field application engineer for Dow Corning (s GLW), says solar manufacturing can also find lessons in the auto industry, despite its recent financial troubles, by learning from its balance of lower-cost jobs with efficient automation.