Amonix Starts Construction on Vegas Solar Factory


The jury over whether concentrating solar photovoltaics (CPV) — a hybrid tech that uses both solar cells and solar thermal tech — will be embraced by companies and utilities, is still out. But that isn’t stopping Amonix, a CPV-maker backed by Kleiner Perkins, from starting construction on its Las Vegas-based manufacturing plant. On Thursday the company broke ground on the 214,000 square foot factory.

At the plant, Amonix will churn out CPV gear, which will go toward building CPV solar plants for customers like Cogentrix, as well as a project that will supply 14 MW for Tucson Electric Power. Amonix say the factory will create 278 jobs, produce 150 MW annually, and will start producing equipment by the end of the first quarter of 2011.

Amonix’s technology uses Fresnel lenses to concentrate the sunlight 500 times onto triple-junction solar cells. Each system, with 53-kilowatt (AC) of generation capacity, is made up of 7 giant modules mounted on a dual-axis tracker. Each module measures 10-ft. by 49-ft and contains 36 sets of lenses and receivers; each receiver contains 30 solar cells. Carla Pihowich, senior director of marketing at Amonix, told us in June that the company is using cells with 39 percent efficiency, which leads to 31 percent efficiency for each module and 25 percent efficiency overall for each system.

When it comes to the basket of solar energy technologies to pick from, utilities have largely favored rooftop solar panels and large concentrating solar thermal systems that use mirrors and lenses to concentrate the sun’s rays and capture the heat. But concentrating photovoltaics (CPV) — a hybrid of the two? Not so much.

But despite that fact, Amonix has managed to raise significant funding. The 20-year-old Seal Beach, Calif.-based company recently raised $129.4 million from the likes of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the Westly Group and the Angeleno Group.

Amonix’s funding and project announcements represent a vote of confidence not just for Amonix but CPV in general. CPV-evangelists says that the technology promises to significantly reduce the amount of solar cells needed for a solar project, which make up a big part of the cost of a solar energy system. The systems can also be smaller and more modular so can be built in more diverse places than the massive desert solar thermal plants.

However, skepticism in the technology stems from the fact that the tech relies on motorized trackers and direct sunlight (can’t make use of diffuse light), which has made it less attractive for developers and regions with many cloudy days. Plus, the price for solar cells that go into solar panels have fallen by at least 50 percent during the past two years, making solar panels a whole lot more appealing for developers and utilities.

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