Solaria’s Makeover: New Solar Factory & HQ

Has solar panel startup Solaria finally hit its stride? The company, which took quite awhile to roll out its products and beef up its manufacturing, seems to be heading that way with a new factory and headquarters in Fremont, Calif. Later this morning, the company is scheduled to celebrate the new digs with big-name guests such as California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sierra Club’s executive director Mike Brune.

With the new space, Solaria has a production capacity of 25 MW per year, compared with the 8 MW in its old space, CEO Dan Shugar told us in an interview. The company also has quasi-contract manufacturing operations of 25 MW in Hyderabad, India, where it owns the equipment but the manufacturing partner provides the labor, he added. Some of the $65 million raised by the company last year funded the new operations, though Shugar declined to specify how much.

Solaria develops solar panels that use lenses to concentrate the sunlight onto silicon solar cells, a process that reduces the need of silicon cells by roughly half. The optics are made of a glass sheet, under which are solar cells that have gone through slicing and other steps to become strips. Solaria’s panels look more like conventional solar panels, but they aren’t necessarily mounted on trackers in the same way as you can see in an array built at the company’s new headquarters. A tracker positions the panels so that they follow the sun’s movement.

The company is among a breed of developers who sought to create alternatives to conventional silicon solar panels. The solar industry experienced a shortage of silicon around 2005 when it was growing and competing against the chip industry for the same raw material, which fetched hundreds of dollars per kilogram. Some companies turned to materials such as copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS), and today we have a raft of CIGS solar panel makers such as Stion, MiaSole and Solyndra.

Others began to experiment with materials such as germanium and gallium-arsenide, which are more expensive than silicon but also can squeeze far more electricity from sunlight. To use these highly-efficient materials, developers rely on mirrors and lenses to concentrate sunlight, so that they can get the same amount of energy while using a smaller amount of materials.

Solaria has opted to stick with silicon but still adds the concentrating optics to help cut costs. The company was founded in 1999 but didn’t start working on concentrating technology until much later. Its engineers at first used acrylic for lenses and placed them under a protective glass layer in the panel. They then decided to ditch acrylic and use only glass for the optics and spent 2009 finalizing a commercial design, Shugar said in a previous interview. The company’s board hired Shugar to give the company that needed big push for growth. Shugar was president of PowerLight and then the head of SunPower’s project development business (SunPower bought PowerLight in 2006) before joining Solaria.

Silicon prices have fallen to less than $100 per kilogram since the shortage and dropped to $79 per kilogram in March this year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. That has made it more difficult for developers of alternative technologies to compete. While Solaria can benefit from the lower price of solar cells, which it buys from other suppliers, it still has to compete with conventional silicon solar panel manufacturers worldwide, some of whom have expanded their factories by hundreds of megawatts in recent years.

Solaria aims to make its panels for at least a third cheaper than conventional silicon panel manufacturers, but getting there will require it to expand its production beyond the current capacity, Shugar said. He declined to divulge the manufacturing costs, however, but added that the company can achieve that goal with less than 100 MW of production capacity.

The company began shipping products about a year ago and has shipped panels to about 20 customers in North America, Italy, Spain, Germany, France and Greece, Shugar said. One of its biggest customers is enXco, with whom it announced a 5-year supply agreement last August (but didn’t reveal the sales volume). EnXco is owned by EDF Energie Nouvelles, which is a Solaria investor.

Solaria produces both framed and frameless solar panels with between 13-14 percent efficiencies. Shugar is bullish about the prospect of the frameless panels, which the company launched last fall, because the lack of frames means up to 50 percent more panels can be packed into a box for shipment, Shugar said. The frameless panels do come with thicker glass to compensate for the lack of frames, which are necessary for conventional panels to withstand the stress of being mounted on racks or trackers.

“We have a lens pattern built into the glass cover, and it turns out that the pattern has a lot of mechanical strength. It provides the dual benefits of radically reducing (the amount of) material and also avoiding the cost of the frame,” Shugar said.

Photo courtesy of Solaria