Alta Devices Pursuing Military on Path to $20 Billion iPad Solar Market

Alta Devices Inc., a U.S. maker of thin-film solar cells, expects military applications from drones to gadget-charging tents and backpacks will generate about 80 percent of its revenue this year. After that, Chief Executive Officer Christopher Norris is aiming at the global mobile-phone market.

The U.S. Department of Defense will pay a premium for Alta’s flexible, high-performance solar cells that are sewn into backpacks, tents and clothing and generate power in remote locations, Norris said yesterday in an interview.

Alta’s cells deliver more electricity per square-inch than rivals’ products, Norris said. That cuts weight, making them well-suited for unmanned aircraft, and for charging consumer devices such as phones and Apple Inc.’s iPad tablet. Adding solar to mobile phones may generate as much as $20 billion in industry sales through 2016, he estimated.

“You can generate the same amount under the sun with an iPad cover as what you can get from the wall,” Norris said by phone. Consumer devices with built-in solar components “will become commonplace in the not-too-distant future.”

Adding about a watt of Sunnyvale, California-based Alta’s solar cells to consumer devices such as smartphones would add $2 to $4 to the total materials cost, he said. Qualcomm Inc. said in November that it expects 5 billion smartphones to be sold globally from 2012 to 2016.

“With one watt each, that’s 5 gigawatts” worth as much as $20 billion, said Norris.

High Efficiency

Alta’s gallium arsenide-based thin-film cells convert 28.8 percent of the energy in sunlight into electricity, according to its website. That’s better than cells from First Solar Inc., which uses different thin-film technology and has reached efficiency rates of 17.3 percent, and SunPower Corp., which produces traditional polysilicon-based photovoltaic cells with conversion rates as high as 24 percent.

The company expects 2013 sales to be up “substantially” from last year, with 80 percent coming from the military and the rest from consumer electronics.

“In the next year or so, our focus is servicing the military,” Norris said. “That’s where the technology is being explored and deployed now.” He wouldn’t provide revenue figures.

That will reverse by 2015, with 80 percent of sales from consumer electronics, Norris said.

New Factory

Alta has a 2-megawatt pilot manufacturing line that makes enough to supply military orders, and a 40-megawatt factory is scheduled to begin production next year to make solar components for mobile phones and other electronic devices, Norris said.

Not having a large factory helped Alta weather a global glut of solar panels that drove down prices more than 60 percent in the last two years and pushed some competitors into bankruptcy, Norris said.

“We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve never been enticed into a very large factory,” he said. Alta’s investors include Sumitomo Electric Industries Ltd., New Enterprise Associates Inc., Dow Chemical Co., General Electric Co. and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Solar for mobile electronics is “obviously an attractive market,” said Shayle Kann, vice president of research at GTM Research in Boston.

The company will have to increase production to capitalize on potential demand from consumer electronics, Kann said in an interview. When the new plant opens, Alta will need to sell enough to keep it running. “When they get to 40 megawatts they’ll have to sell 40 megawatts.”

Copyright 2013 Bloomberg

Lead image: Tablet with grass via Shutterstock

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