Solar startup 1366 Technologies received its first order this week from “a major German solar developer,” Craig Lund, director of business development for the Lexington, Mass.-based company, said today at the Intersolar North America conference in San Francisco. 1366 has developed technology that can give solar panels a rougher texture — which adds surface area, increases internal light refraction and boosts panel efficiency by what it claims is 0.6 percent.
The order is for a prototype machine, not a commercial machine, but Lund said it could lead to commercial orders if the machine performs well in tests. 1336 is still working out the manufacturing details, but it expects to deliver the machine in the next 10 months.
Assuming everything goes well, a commercial machine could take only 6-9 months to make, from the time a customer completes testing and places an order, Lund said. But 1336 doesn’t plan to wait for its first customers’ test results to take more orders. Lund said: “We’re aggressively going after orders. We’ve got line of sight to revenue in the next year and a half.”
1366 Technologies, an MIT spinoff, is developing technologies that it claims can boost the efficiency of multicrystalline silicon cells from 16-18 percent. The idea is to come up with new machines and processes that can be inserted directly into existing solar-manufacturing lines, improving solar panels’ conversion efficiency and reducing their cost per watt. The company plans to deliver, as Lund put it, “minor tweaks that have a big impact.” 1366 Technologies raised $12.4 million in 2008 and also completed its first pilot line.
While other solar startups are focusing on developing new solar materials that will replace silicon, such as thin films, 1366 Technologies thinks that crystalline silicon will continue to be the “predominant solar technology for the foreseeable future,” Lund said. One of the main reasons is that silicon –- which is also used for electronics -– can be produced anywhere in the world, with supply chains already in place. Meanwhile an oversupply of silicon is driving down its price.
While now might not seem like an easy time to sell new technologies to solar companies, which are suffering from declining prices as a result of an oversupply of panels as demand has dropped, Lund said 1366 has actually seen increased interest in its technologies in the last nine months as companies look for ways to survive the price declines and attract customers. Nine months ago, potential customers only wanted to talk about scale as they rushed to increase capacity as quickly as possible to take advantage of the high prices available, Lunde said. Now, they’re ready to listen. “Companies are really thirsty for new technologies that can differentiate them,” Lund said.
Aside from the texturing technology, 1366 is also developing a grooved busbar, the metal strips that connect electricity on a panel, which enables a panel to capture more light, potentially delivering a 0.5 percent efficiency gain, Lund said. Other technologies include a sawing technology to cut the amount of silicon wasted in turning ingots into wafers. Currently, about half of solar silicon is lost in the sawing process. It’s all about lowering the cost of solar panels, said Lunde: “At this point in PV, what’s really going to cause cost reductions is machines and manufacturing processes,” he said. “We can deliver key technology that is ripe for the market right now.”