Solar Technology Innovation Heating up Manufacturing Sector
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From thin-film photovoltaics to utility-scale solar thermal power, the heavily-funded solar power industry is at the center of technological innovations that are expected to have major impacts on manufacturing.

In the ’90s, “technology” meant—essentially—information technology. While IT is still a huge driver of innovation, popular conceptions of “technology” are changing as innovations across multiple industries combine to reshape old markets and create giant new ones in areas where basic needs—such as clean air and water—are going unfulfilled. Breakthroughs in nano-scale engineering and materials science, for example, are behind promising new developments in everything from water filtration to the generation of power via fuel cells and thin-film solar cells. The energy industry, in particular, is riding the momentum of technological innovations that have blown the sector wide open.

“What’s hard for a lot of IT investors to understand is how big energy is,” said David Wells of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, speaking at the Livingston Nanotechnology Conference in New York City in December. “These markets are much bigger than IT, healthcare, or any other market. Energy is vast.”

On the leading edge of energy technology today is “clean technology,” also known as cleantech. Lux Research, Inc., an independent research and advisory firm specializing in emerging technologies, and publisher of The Cleantech Report,defines cleantech as the use of innovative technologies that are designed to optimize the use of natural resources and reduce environmental impact. The term includes innovations that are currently being developed and applied in the energy, air, water, and waste industry segments, as well as the catch-all “sustainability” segment.

Today, venture capitalists, corporations, and governments throughout the world are viewing cleantech as an economic opportunity without precedent. In 2006, cleantech accounted for $22 billion in corporate R&D spending, $24 billion in government funding, and $2.04 billion in venture capital outlays, according to Lux Research. And data released last month by Greentech Media, Inc., confirms that venture capital investment in renewable energy is at an all-time high, totaling $3.4 Billion in 2007.

“VC investment in renewable energy in 2007 was up 50% over the previous year with more than 220 funding rounds across the entire spectrum of renewable energy, from solar to batteries to energy efficiency,” said Eric Wesoff, senior analyst at Greentech Media. “Investors are looking for 2008-2010 to be the years of renewable energy exits.”

Among the major alternative energy VC funding rounds in 2007 were HelioVolt’s $101M for thin film photovoltaics, Great Point’s $100M for coal gasification, Amyris’ $70M for synthetic biology and biofuels, and A123’s $70M for innovative battery technology.

Solar Market Outlook is Bright

Solar power-ranging from thin-film photovoltaics (PV) to solar thermal energy-has attracted the most financing, leading all categories with more than $1.05 Billion in venture capital investments. Also reaching record levels of renewable energy funding were investments in battery technology ($433.9 Million) and the energy efficiency/smart grid sector ($419.1 Million).

A new technical market research report from BCC Research (www.bccresearch.com), “Photovoltaics: Global Markets & Technologies,” predicts the global market for photovoltaics (PV) will be worth over $16 billion by the end of 2008. But the market is expected to increase to over $32.2 billion by 2013 as it grows by a compound average annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.9%. Drivers of this rapid growth of PV, according to the report, are the global demand for energy of all kinds, the potential problems of climate change, the renewable features of solar energy, and improvements in PV technology and materials. Photovoltaics are expected to increasingly be made a part of industrial and living structures. (For more information, contact BCC Research, publisher of the report, at 866-285-7215; editor@bccresearch.com.)

“The solar industry is at a moment of transition similar to the transition the wind industry experienced about a decade ago,” says John O’Donnell, executive vice president of Ausra, Inc., a Palo Alto, California company that develops and deploys solar thermal power technology to serve global electricity needs. “Generations of R&D have reduced costs to the point that solar is directly competitive in the electricity markets, and we see very large demand in the immediate future as capital flows into building large power projects. The Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) last year said that land filings are pending with BLM for over 15,000 MW of solar projects in Nevada and Arizona alone; such projects would be at least $50B in capital spending as they are built.”

Technology Enables Low-cost Printing of Thin-film Solar Cells

The market for printed electronics totaled approximately $1billion in 2006, and is expected to exceed $300 billion within 20 years, according to Plextronics, Inc., a Pittsburgh-based company that is developing active layer technology for printed electronic devices. Active layer technology comprises the printed conductors and semiconductors that drive the performance of the device.

Plextronics designs the molecules that make up the semiconductors in the solar cell, according to Troy Hammond, vice president of products. Essentially, the company is able to print an organic semiconductor on a polymer substrate, using custom-formulated inks and nano-enabled, high-performance conductive polymers. Utilizing substantial know-how, as well as a key set of patents that it licensed from Richard McCullough at Carnegie-Mellon University, the company is in position to drive the technology forward with new molecular designs that absorb more of the sun’s light and convert a higher percentage of the energy to electricity.

“We believe broad commercialization can begin with solar modules of 5 to 6 percent in efficiency,” says Hammond. “Commercialization is possible at lower efficiencies than other technologies because of the lower cost.”

The technology enables lower-cost solar modules because the active layers themselves—the conductive polymers—are much lower in cost to manufacture than silicon or the films with rare heavy metals in other technologies. Solar modules can be manufactured from these low-cost active layers with simple low-cost printing techniques.

“Thin-film organic photovoltaic technology (OPV) will be a printed product, manufactured from high-tech inks that are deposited with gravure, slot-die, spray, or other types of application,” says Hammond. “This is different from typical silicon and other thin-film solar technologies that rely heavily on sophisticated vacuum vapor deposition processes. Clearly, the printing industry has an opportunity for dramatic growth as this and other organic, printed electronic products come to market over the next decade.”

As Hammond sees it, OPV modules will eventually power everything from hand-held electronics to large-scale, on-grid electricity. Other types of organic electronics, he says, are expected to produce the next generation of flat panel displays, ultra-low cost RFID tags, and, ultimately, new white lighting technology. “Off-grid” applications, such as battery chargers for hand-held electronics, will be served first. Demand is also high in the military for low-cost portable solar modules that can decrease the load of batteries that soldiers carry into the field. In the longer term, Hammond says, on-grid applications will become candidates for the technology as efficiencies and durability improve.

The investment arms of Solvay, the large Belgian chemicals company, and Applied Materials, have made equity investments in Plextronics. However, the company’s specific partner activities are currently confidential. Once the technology is commercialized, Plextronics intends to manufacture the critical active layer inks and provide them, along with critical process technology, to companies that manufacture OPV module products.

Producing Electricity with Innovative Solar Thermal Power

Ausra Inc., the Palo Alto, California-based developer of utility-scale solar thermal power, announced in December that it is building the first U.S. manufacturing plant for solar thermal power systems in Las Vegas. Scheduled to begin regular operation in April, the 130,000-square-foot, highly automated manufacturing and distribution center will produce the reflectors, towers, absorber tubes, and other key components of the company’s solar thermal power plants.

Solar thermal power plants produce electricity without pollution by using fields of mirrors to capture the sun’s power. They can store energy as heat to continue power generation at night and during cloudy periods. Ausra has developed a new Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector (CLFR) solar technology that utilizes heat from the sun’s rays to create steam. The system employs solar collectors that boil water at high temperatures to power steam turbine generators, in a manner similar to the way that traditional fossil-fuel power plants work, but without the use of fuel or emissions. Ausra says that its innovations in mirror systems have brought the price of solar power down to the level of gas-fired power today, and will soon reach prices associated with coal-fired generation.

“Ausra can fill four square miles with solar collectors every year from this one factory, enough to provide market-priced zero-pollution power to 500,000 homes,” said Bob Fishman, president and CEO of Ausra, in a statement announcing the new construction. “Americans want clean power, and are tired of the market fluctuations, price increases, and pollution from fossil power plants. With market-priced solar power, we are entering the Solar Decade, in which massive construction of solar plants will take place. We are investing now in the systems and capacity to serve that need.”

In November 2007, Ausra and California utility PG&E announced a power purchase agreement for a one-square-mile, 177-megawatt power plant, enough to power over 120,000 homes, to be built in central California. Ausra’s new Las Vegas facility will manufacture the solar field equipment for the PG & E project and for other power projects throughout the American Southwest. The factory will be capable of making over 700 megawatts (electric) of solar collectors per year, and is expected to employ up to 50 highly skilled manufacturing workers in the Las Vegas area.

Design-2-Part Magazine asked John O’Donnell, executive vice president at Ausra, how the company sees advances in clean technology (such as the solar thermal power technology provided by the company) affecting the manufacturing industry, currently and in the future.

 “There’s good news and more good news,” O’Donnell stated. “Many observers have predicted economic slowdowns as a consequence of coming costs of carbon emissions in the U.S.—overall rises in the price of energy causing slowdowns in all sectors of the economy, as has happened following rises in the price of oil and other fossil fuels,” continued O’Donnell. “We see a different outlook: Large-scale construction of clean energy infrastructure is going to accelerate capital spending and manufacturing, and the construction of large-scale solar power plants is going to provide energy supplies at today’s prices, but at stable, predictable prices that are no longer subject to market swings in fossil fuels or the larger market swings Europe has seen in carbon markets.”

O’Donnell says that Ausra’s innovations in the design and manufacturing process have addressed the major challenges that have traditionally stymied solar power, namely, the ability to scale to a very high deployment rate, and the cost of delivered energy. “We have achieved breakthroughs in both areas,” he says.

Ausra has accomplished cost breakthroughs in three key areas: reflector systems, receiver systems, and energy storage systems. The company’s Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector system replaces heat-curved glass mirrors, held 30 feet above ground by high-thrust electro-hydraulic positioners, with rotationally balanced flat glass mirrors that are positioned eight feet or less above ground and driven by low-cost, low-energy drive systems. In addition, the company’s founders pioneered the selective surfaces used in most of today’s solar thermal systems, according to O’Donnell. Ausra’s receivers use a new, air-stable selective surface that is said to be a breakthrough, enabling them to replace evacuated blown-glass envelopes, moving tubes with ball joints, and expensive thermal transfer fluids, with an air-insulated, direct-steam generation system. Besides being much less costly, the system is said to use significantly less energy than other designs in pumping energy from the solar field.

But perhaps most important, Ausra’s systems operate at a somewhat lower temperature point (roughly 280ºC), allowing the use of less-expensive thermal energy storage systems than those employed in higher-temperature systems. And whereas earlier solar CSP systems required extensive manual assembly and alignment in the field, Ausra’s manufacturing strategy moves all precision optical work into a production-line environment. The company’s strategy of producing fully-formed reflector assemblies on precision robotic lines leads to higher repeatability and product quality, as well as lower costs. 

“Ausra has invested in manufacturing infrastructure to position ourselves as the lowest-cost and highest-volume manufacturer worldwide,” says O’Donnell. “We are seeing excellent demand for our solar power plants, which led us to announce our North American Manufacturing Facility in Las Vegas last month. The 130,000-square-foot, highly automated manufacturing and distribution center will be capable of making 700 megawatts (electric) of solar collectors per year. The facility will have capacity to produce reflectors, towers, thermal collector absorber tubes, and other key components for power plants, beginning in April 2008.”

When asked what types of performance improvements Ausra is looking to achieve in its R&D program, O’Donnell replied: “We see significant ongoing opportunities in developing improved surface coatings (antireflective coatings for shield glass, higher performance reflectors, coatings to extend lifetime and cleaning intervals), new reflector and structural materials, and completely new systems in other temperature domains.”

What it Means for Manufacturers

As the demand for solar power systems increases, so will the demand for the parts needed to build reflectors, tower systems, thermal collector absorber tubes, and steam handling equipment. Demand for the parts needed to construct solar modules, trackers, mounting structures, and enclosures will also rise.

Ausra, for one, is "strongly interested in building long-term relationships with capable suppliers and manufacturers," according to Jim Barnhart, vice president. As the company looks to source the "myriad balance-of-plant components that complete a steam-powered energy system," Ausra's approach is to "pursue lowest-cost, highest-quality supply solutions that will reliably deliver needed volumes in a timely manner with acceptable intellectual property controls," Barnhart stated.


Contract Manufacturer Producing Galvanized Tubing for Solar Tracking and Mounting Systems
Company also produces galvanized angles and roll forms for solar installations

One company that manufactures galvanized steel tubing for the renewable energy market is Allied Tube & Conduit, the largest business unit of Tyco Electrical & Metal Products. The Harvey, Illinois, company uses an in-line galvanizing process that yields a technologically advanced version of traditional hot-dip galvanized steel tube. Steel tube is galvanized as it’s being produced, not after, so it comes off the production line as a coated, finished product. In addition to manufacturing steel tubing, Allied Tube produces in-line galvanized steel angles (Flo-Form™) and galvanized roll forms. All three—tubing, angles, and roll forms—have been used successfully in solar installations around the world.

To manufacture steel tubing for solar applications, Allied uses its Gatorshield® in-line galvanizing process, said to provide a thicker layer of zinc coating than the company’s patented triple-layer Flo-Coat® process. The thicker, 99.9% pure interior zinc coating maximizes corrosion and rust protection on the inside of the tube, extending longevity in highly corrosive environments. It’s topped by two additional layers of coating to seal in the protection. Because Gatorshield’s 99.9% pure zinc alloy content brings significantly less harmful lead content to the process than either pre-galvanized or hot-dipped products, lead oxide fumes are kept to “an absolute minimum” during welding, the company says.

Allied Tube uses steel with higher quality than industry standards to produce its Flo-Form™ in-line galvanized angles, adapting them to the customer’s application requirements for wall thickness, size, and length. The result is said to be stronger, lighter, and more durable roll-formed angles.

Massachusetts Company Builds Large-scale Metal Fabrications for Solar Panel Manufacturing

TechPrecision Corporation, a Westminster, Massachusetts-based manufacturer of large-scale, high-precision machined metal fabrications and machined assemblies, is one company that derives a significant portion of its revenues from the alternative energy industry. Through its wholly-owned subsidiary, Ranor, Inc., (also located in Westminster, Massachusetts), TechPrecision produces the large-scale fabrications and assemblies, weighing up to 100 tons, for the alternative energy, medical, aerospace and defense, nuclear, and other commercial industries.

Large-scale chambers used in the manufacture of solar panels are an example of the type of mission-critical components that the contract manufacturing firm produces. Just over two months ago, TechPrecision announced that it had received a purchase order from a current customer, GT Solar, for the production of equipment in the solar industry. Total sales price of the equipment is said to exceed $9 million, and TechPrecision expects that the orders will be filled primarily during its fiscal year ending March 31, 2009. The purchase order is consistent with the “normal level of orders from the customer that the company has experienced over the last nine months,” the company says.

TechPrecision employs end-to-end capabilities to engineer the tooling and manufacturing processes for each project, as well as to fabricate, machine, assemble, test, and deliver large-scale metal products with tight tolerance levels. Its Ranor subsidiary’s 125,000-square-foot manufacturing facility provides capabilities for CAD/CAM-enabled cutting of carbon steel up to 22 inches thick, as well as stainless and non-ferrous metals up to 7 inches thick. Also on board is a 1500-ton hydraulic press brake, with a 30-foot-long bed, that can form 1-inch-thick steel at full length.


Aluminum Foam Components Are Custom Engineered for Specific Application Requirements

Another contract manufacturer that’s developing components for applications in the solar power industry is ERG Materials and Aerospace Corporation, Oakland, California (click here for more on ERG). The company designs and manufactures custom-engineered parts using its own Duocel® open-celled aluminum foam material, which has already been used as the structural core and heat media for the aft solar-panel deck of a solar-powered race vehicle (photo, top). Now, the company is developing the material for use in a solar thermal collector, according to Bryan Leyda, ERG’s engineering manager and chief engineer.

 “Because of its structure, it’s able to absorb a lot of heat,” says Leyda. “The ligaments absorb the light waves, but they don’t let them get out again. The foam is positioned under the silicon panel as a light energy absorber, which converts light energy to thermal energy. The foam has also been used as a laser dump, where if you have excess laser energy, it tends to absorb the excess energy if the laser drifts off target.”

Applications for the company’s Duocel® foam could become more prevalent within the solar power industry in the future, Leyda says. The foam could be used both as a structure to support solar cells or as an energy absorber, or even in a combination of solar cells and fuel cells, according to Leyda.

“We’re doing some work with fuel cells right now, where we’re working with a company that was able to replace about three or four components using our foam,” Leyda says. “Fuel cells must have a device that allows hydrogen to pass through a structure into an operative membrane, which has to pull off the water vapor, pick up the electrical power, and also keep the device cool. So our foam was used as a heat exchanger to handle all of these functions.”

Spire Semiconductor to Provide Custom Manufacturing of Solar Concentrator Cells

In late January, Spire Corporation announced that its wholly owned subsidiary, Spire Semiconductor, will provide dedicated, large-scale contract design and manufacturing capabilities to manufacturers of solar concentrator cells within its 50,000-square-foot facility in Hudson, New Hampshire. Spire Semiconductor develops and manufactures custom high-efficiency gallium arsenide (GaAs) solar cells and specializes in high-end wafer epitaxy, foundry services, thin film products, and device fabrication for the defense, biomedical, telecommunications, and consumer products markets.

“We want manufacturers and system integrators to know that they have a strong partner in Spire Semiconductor,” said Roger G. Little, Spire’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. “That’s why we developed this Captive Custom Capacity initiative that leverages our decades of experience and state-of-the-art facilities. We now can offer our partners the benefits of an optimized design and manufacturing process with the potential for large-scale contract production based on their individual needs.”

Spire Corporation also announced last month that Gloria Spire Solar, LLC, a joint venture company formed by Spire Corporation and Gloria Solar Co., Ltd., has won a contract to design and install a 308-kilowatt photovoltaic (PV) solar electric system at The Lee Company’s manufacturing facility in Westbrook, Connecticut. It is reported to be the largest solar electric system to be installed for a manufacturing company in Connecticut, and one of the largest in New England.

The system, consisting of 1,760 photovoltaic panels on the roof of the newly constructed facility, is approximately half the size of a football field, covering nearly 29,000 square feet of roof space. At peak power, the system will generate enough electricity to cleanly provide 17 percent of the manufacturing facility’s power consumption. This is equivalent to the power usage of 34 homes for one full year. The installation will eliminate the emission of 282 tons of carbon dioxide associated with combusting conventional fossil fuels.

For more than 50 years, The Lee Company has been a pioneer in the development of miniature fluid control components for aerospace and other industrial applications. The company employs nearly 800 people in Connecticut and more than 100 at its Westbrook facility. The installation of the 308-kilowatt system will play a crucial role in the company’s plans for new facilities and jobs in the area.

“We are committed to employing renewable energy sources to lower costs while reducing the environmental impact of our operations in Connecticut,” said William Lee, CFO of The Lee Company. “We chose Gloria Spire Solar because they are a recognized leader in providing turnkey solar systems and because they have the proven capability to manage the entire project from system design to installation and commissioning.”

For more on Lux Research, Inc., visit www.luxresearchinc.com

For more on BCC Research, visit www.bccresearch.com.  

For more on Ausra, Inc., visit www.ausra.com

For more on Plextronics, Inc., visit www.plextronics.com.

For more on Allied Tube & conduit, visit www.alliedtube.com.

For more on TechPrecision Corporation, visit www.techprecision.com.

For more on Gloria Spire Solar, visit www.gloriaspire.com

For more on The Lee Company, visit www.theleeco.com.

For more on Spire Corp., visit www.spirecorp.com.  

For more on ERG Materials and Aerospace, visit www.ergaerospace.com.

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