Intersolar: When It Comes to Solar Panels, Spire CEO Says Supersize 'Em

If you can supersize meals, why not solar panels? Roger Little, chief executive of Spire (s SPIR), which develops equipment for solar PV panel manufacturing, thinks so. Little, who spoke on a panel at the Intersolar conference this week in San Francisco, told us that his Medford, Mass.-based company has developed a prototype of a machine that would produce what he calls “supersized” solar modules. The giant panels would be about 3 5 feet by 12 feet in size and produce about 1 kilowatt of power each, or about five times the surface area and power output of standard panels today.

Supersized panels could “get huge savings from reductions in labor and system costs,” Little said. For the same amount of power output, supersized panels could mean installers could use one-fifth the number of panels and less wiring, as well as other system components. Little estimates his large panels could save about 30 cents per watt, or more than 7 percent of the total system cost for utility-scale projects.

But the supersized panels do have drawbacks, Little said. They’d be so big that it would be too costly to transport them very far. That’s why he believes the only smart application of these panels would be for large-scale projects where a temporary production facility can be built next to the installation site. The facility could pump out, say, 25- to 50-megawatts worth of panels per year until the installation was completed and then disassembled and reassembled at the next site. “You pick up and move it,” Little said. “It’s not that big of a deal.” He said the panel manufacturer would want to have extended relationships with a utility or independent power producer and keep its temporary production facility within a limited region, for example, the service area of an electric utility.

Little acknowledged that picking up and moving a production facility would add costs, but he maintained that there would still be overall savings. But there would be other hurdles, too: You’d need a work force willing to move along with the production facility, and the dependence on one facility for module production could introduce risks and slow a project’s timeline.

So far, there have been no takers, Little said. The company has talked with California utility Pacific Gas & Electric and others, but he said that was several years ago. The company hasn’t pushed the supersized idea since then, but Little said he’s considering revisiting it again.