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AQT Plans for Solar Factory in South Carolina

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AQT Solar, which opened a factory in Silicon Valley last year, is heading to South Carolina to set up a solar cell factory that will start with 30-40 MW of annual production capacity and will reach around 1,000 MW by the end of 2014, the company said Thursday.

The Sunnyvale, Calif., startup, founded in 2007, plans to set up the factory in Richland County this year and start production in 2012, said AQT CEO, Michael Bartholomeusz. AQT will set up equipment for two production lines totaling 30-40 MW this year.

AQT makes solar cells using copper, indium, gallium, sulfur and selenium as the main ingredients to convert sunlight into electricity. Unlike many other solar companies using similar materials, AQT isn’t depositing them on a large piece of glass or flexible metal sheet to make a solar panel. Instead, the startup is layering the CIGSS on 6-inch glass pieces that can be drop-in replacement for crystalline silicon solar cells inside a panel. AQT contracts with other manufacturers to assemble those cells into panels.

AQT has lined up about 65 MW of customer orders and is negotiating for additional sales agreements for 160 MW, Bartholomeusz said.

South Carolina has offered an incentive package that includes what the state calls “job development credits.” The job development credits allow companies to use a portion of new employees’ withheld taxes for its operational needs. The state also has approved two grants totaling $2 million for building and infrastructure improvements and job creation. The first $1 million will be released as a reimbursement of improvement work done to create 500 jobs, but the money won’t be available until the company lines up a new round of private funding, the state said. The second $1 million is tied to the creation of another 519 jobs.

Bartholomeusz declined to disclose how much AQT will have to raise to receive the first grant or how much the company will have to secure overall to complete the factory project by 2014.

AQT announced the opening of its factory in Sunnyvale, Calif., on Aug. 12 last year. In its press release, the company said it had started production at the new facility to fill customer orders. At the factory tour held two weeks later, Bartholomeusz said the company actually wouldn’t start producing cells until September. The factory now has 15 MW of annual production capacity, and the company plans to boost that to 30-40 MW by the end of 2011.

The company shipped its cells to “several customers” in the last quarter, Bartholomeusz said. In December, solar panels with AQT cells headed to Mexico for a 2 MW installation at a gated community in southern Baja, he added.

The company has a deal with Solar Enertech to have Solar Enertech assemble panels with AQT cells. But the panels shipped last quarter weren’t done by Solar Enertech, said Bartholomeusz, who declined to say who produced the panels. The agreement with Solar Enertech remains in place, and the company will assemble “a large portion” of AQT cells in the future, he said.

Last August, the company said its cells could reach 14 percent efficiency. Asked whether AQT was able to hit the number after it began production, Bartholomeusz said the company is asking National Renewable Energy Laboratory to verify its cell efficiency before releasing the number. NREL is one of several organizations in the world that provide efficiency verification services that are deemed credible by the solar industry.

Solar panels with AQT cells will need to get UL and IEC certification, something that solar panel makers are working on, Bartholomeusz said.

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Photo of AQT Solar’s future factory in South Carolina, courtesy of AQT.