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Vertical Integration Continues: SolarCity Buys Silevo for $200 Million, Plans GW Factory in NY

In an effort to further streamline its solar business and lower the overall cost of solar energy, SolarCity announced today that it would acquire high-efficiency cell manufacturer Silevo for $200 million. In an effort to scale up the technology, SolarCity plans to construct a 1-GW manufacturing facility located in Buffalo, New York within the next two years.

The solar leasing company acquired mounting company Zep Solar in late 2013 in an effort to further vertically integrate its business. Now, chairman Elon Musk explained SolarCity’s imminent need for more, and cheaper, solar panel production, which he expects to reach “tens of GW” annually. “We thought that there was a risk of not being able to have the solar panels we need to expand [SolarCity] long-term…[When considering] the rate at which solar power is advancing, the amount of panels that are being made at a large scale today is really not fast enough,” he said during a conference call.

Musk emphasized the need for not only increased panel production, but a focus on advanced panel technology, which is what SolarCity believes that Silveo has to offer. A combination of higher volume and increased efficiency will “have a dramatic impact on solar and in particular be able to have solar power compete on an unsubsidized basis with the fossilized grid,” said Musk. “It is critical that you have high-efficiency solar panels and a total installed cost as low as possible.” 

The Technology

After reviewing dozens of companies, SolarCity ultimately decided to pursue Silevo due to its proven technology and manufacturing success. Silevo uses what it calls “triex” technology to create a crystalline-amorphous hybrid cell, which creates a tunneling oxide and amorphous silicon layer. These layers allow increased temperature tolerance and lead to a high efficiency that currently stands at 21 percent, but SolarCity hopes to reach 24 percent within the next couple of years. The manufacturing process also uses copper electrode metallization rather than silver, which leads to lower costs.

Watch Ucilia Wang discuss Silevo’s technology with then-vice president of business development and marketing Chris Beitel at the 2012 PV America Conference below:

 

SolarCity co-founder and chief technology officer Peter Rive explained during the conference call that the Silevo technology compares well to standard cells in the 17-18 percent efficiency range and thin film in the 13-14 percent range. While SolarCity’s goal is to eventually reach 24 percent, Rive also noted that 26.4 percent is possible with ground-mounted and tilted flat roof systems due to the technology’s bifacial nature, which means it can absorb sunlight from both sides of the panel.

Rive explained some of the advantages of higher efficiencies with a common residential rooftop system comparison: “Consider a typical 6-kW system with standard efficiency panels and then picture that same system with 24 percent efficiency tri-cell,” he said. “Currently the system requires 24 panels, but the triex-module will require 18 panels. So it requires less labor, less mounting, less wiring, and so on.”

Big Manufacturing Plans 

SolarCity is currently in discussions with the state of New York for its manufacturing facility. According to Rive, its initial target capacity is 1 GW within the next two years, making it one of the single largest solar panel productions in the world, creating thousands of local jobs. Groundbreaking is expected to happen very soon, according to Musk. Silevo currently has a 32-MW factory in China.

When comparing the relative costs of domestic vs overseas manufacturing, said Rive, “we believe that at scale we can achieve a competitive cost domestically as a result of having lower energy costs, avoiding import tariffs, a highly automated manufacturing facility and the fact that the triex cell has less labor content per module due to higher efficiency.”

The Silevo technology can be manufactured with off-the-shelf equipment from the semiconductor and flat-panel display industries and standard wafers, according to Rive. SolarCity also plans to open a research facility in silicon valley to ensure that it meets and even exceeds its efficiency targets.

When all is said and done, SolarCity will be one of the most vertically integrated solar companies in the world, spanning module manufacturing, installation, operations and maintenance, and energy sales. “What I am excited about is when we combine engineers at Silevo, Zep, and SolarCity to tailor manufacturing for all solar panels so they are specifically ready for installation,” said Rive.

Though the company does not have current plans to pursue any of the missing pieces to its vertically integrated puzzle, such as inverters or power optimizers, Musk said that they are open to suggestions and constantly looking to pursue the ultimate goal of the industry — to lower the cost of energy.

“We intend to put a lot of effort R&D on the panel side, into the hardware that we already own, and into inverter and battery technology to provide an overall solution to provide electric power at a price less than fossil fuels that are burdening the grid – that is the key threshold,” said Musk. “The demand grows exponentially as price drops, and it will grow at an enormous pace if we compete with grid electricity with no incentives. That is and has been the goal in order for the world to have sustainable energy." 

Lead image: Lanes merging sign via Shutterstock

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