Champion photovoltaic companies and labs

Where the rubber hits the road (or is it sun hits the silicon?) is with all of the many companies that have taken on the business of photovoltaics. These are the companies that are installing PV on rooftops and in fields, manufacturing PV cells and modules, and supplying manufacturing equipment and materials, among many others.

(October 7, 2010) — We’ve saluted the advocates of photovoltaics that are working to change public policy and awareness, the technologists that are working behind the scenes to reduce PV’s cost/Watt through increased efficiency and reduced manufacturing costs, and the investors that are funding PV’s dramatic growth.

Also read, from the Champions of Photovoltaics issue:

A salute to champions of photovoltaics today

Champions of photovoltaics technology

Champion advocates of solar

Champion investors in photovoltaics

China dominates economic development in solar PV space

Where the rubber hits the road (or is it sun hits the silicon?) is with all of the many companies that have taken on the business of photovoltaics. These are the companies that are installing PV on rooftops and in fields, manufacturing PV cells and modules, and supplying manufacturing equipment and materials, among many others. Although not officially “companies” by a strict definition, national labs and other research organizations have certainly done their part in making widespread use of photovoltaics a reality.

It’s a highly competitive field, and business conditions have been challenging over the last few years, to say the least. The following companies are recognized not necessarily on their business performance, but for their champion attitude and their gusto for photovoltaics.


It may seem incongruous to pick “fuel spewing” NASCAR (the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing), a family-owned and -operated business, as a champion of photovoltaics, but consider this: the iconic “tricky triangle” Pocono Raceway in Lond Pond, PA, recently set up a 3MW ground-mount solar installation that not only powers the track, but 1000 nearby homes. Construction began in May 2010 and was officially dedicated by enXco – an EDF Energies Nouvelles Company at the end of July. The 25-acre solar installation, which is located adjacent to the 2.5-mile race track, consists of nearly 40,000 photovoltaic modules.

A number of prominent sports sites use solar energy, including Taiwan’s National Stadium, which recently hosted the World Games; AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants; Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians; and the Stade de Suisse Wankdorf in Bern, Switzerland. Pocono’s solar farm, however, could generate the most power by far.

According to an article in The New York Times, the track decided to go this route when deregulation threatened to raise the track’s annual power bills by nearly 40%, to as much as $500,000. A press release from enXco put a favorable spin on the deal: “With the deregulation of Pennsylvania’s electric utility laws allowing more flexibility on power purchases, the track found there is no better time to upgrade their facility.” The cost of the solar installation is estimated at around $17 million.

Newark, CA-based Belectric, Inc. performed the design, permitting, procurement, construction, and commissioning of the project for enXco. Belectric says its proprietary system represents the first high voltage, floating ground, and actively controlled power factor installation in North America, providing lower installed costs and improved performance.

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First Solar

First Solar is the largest manufacturer of thin film solar modules, and is generally credited with being the first to break the grid-parity barrier (back in 2008!) with a 12.6 MW system in NV, near Boulder City, for Sempra Generation. The plant produces power at a cost of $0.075 per kilowatt hour vs conventional power of $0.09 per kilowatt hour. The company was formed in 1999 and launched production of commercial products in 2002.

First Solar has expanded manufacturing capacity to an annualized run rate of 59MW per line in the 2nd quarter of 2010. It expects to bring total capacity to more than 1.4GW by the end of 2010. It also claims to have developed the first comprehensive, prefunded module collection and recycling program in the PV industry, but this was born of necessity: major concerns of the cadmium in the firm’s CdTe panels. Environmental concerns aside, the CdTe is attractive because it is less susceptible to cell temperature variations than traditional semiconductors, and also converts low and diffuse light to electricity more efficiently than conventional cells. This means CdTe modules produce more electricity on hot days, under cloudy weather and across a larger percent of normal daylight.

First Solar PV modules are the first thin film PV modules to reach 2GW of modules in installations. First Solar manufactures the modules on high throughput, automated lines from semiconductor deposition to final assembly and test — all in one continuous process. The whole flow, from a piece of glass to a completed solar module, takes less than 2.5 hours.


Solaria has a unique approach to manufacturing photovoltaic modules, that CEO Dan Shugar says is focused on “return on invested capital.” He says that they have figured out a way to add value to conventional crystalline silicon cells by cutting one cell into three. That’s then combine with a “very simple, effective lens that gets the same amount of power as if we’d had three cells,” Shugar said.  Today, Solaria’s module employs 2X concentration, which enables a 50% reduction in the amount of silicon cell material needed compared to standard PV modules. In the future, Solaria plans to develop a module featuring a 3X lens, which will reduces silicon cell material 67% compared to standard PV modules.

Shugar said efforts at the Sierra Club with which he is involved are aimed at pushing photovoltaics into the mainstream. “I’d like us to go from 15GW to 50GW really fast. If you did it the conventional way, that would require 2-3$/W. You’d be looking at $70-100 billion for new factories to build crystalline silicon material. In our case, it would be 5-10% of that cost.”

Solaria headquarters are in California with operations in Germany and India. Solaria modules are designed specifically for ground-mounted tracking systems and certified to UL1703 and IEC61215 standards.


Already well-established in the semiconductor industry, Varian is known for its ion implantation technology. Now it has adapted this technology to the PV industry. Introduced at EU PVSEC this year, Varian calls the process “Solion Blue.” The company says the process reduces manufacturing costs and increases cell efficiency by increasing the blue-light response of the solar cell and eliminating the so called “dead zone” from the cell surface. Contact regions on the cell surface can be doped to 50 ohms/sq while the field is doped more lightly at 80 ohms/sq. The lighter-doped field region will have inherently better blue response than cells utilizing blanket doping with phosphorous oxychloride (POCl3). Typically, average conversion efficiencies of a standard POCl3 process will increase to greater than 18.5%. By eliminating the use of POCl3, users will achieve a simplified process flow that is easy to integrate into existing manufacturing lines. Edge-isolation process steps are eliminated, and the phosphor-silicate glass surface passivation layer created by the POCl3 process is replaced by a superior thermal oxide layer, further increasing efficiency. Jim Mullin, VP and GM, solar products, said the system would pay for itself in about a year.


SunPower’s claim to fame: its solar panels have proven to be the most efficient solar panels on the planet, at the writing of this report. The company’s roots go back nearly four decades, when co-founder, Richard Swanson, was working on his doctorate in engineering at Stanford University. By 1985, Swanson (who by then was a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford) had been awarded grants from the Electric Power Research Institute and the Department of Energy to support his solar power explorations. With the help of these funds — as well as financial support from two venture capital firms — SunPower was officially incorporated. In 2007, SunPower acquired PowerLight. In 2008, SunPower signed an agreement with Pacific Gase & Electric (PG&E) to build the world’s largest — 250 MW — photovoltaic power plant, set to begin energy delivery this year.


In September 2010, Oerlikon Solar launched a new production line called “ThinFab” for manufacturing of thin film silicon modules, which it claims will achieve record breaking production costs of €0.50 (about $0.65)  per Watt peak (Wp). How? By reducing the energy “payback-time” of thin film silicon modules to below one year, thanks to very low energy consumption (the lowest in the industry, according to Oerlikon). At the same time, the company announced a new Micromorph lab cell in cooperation with Corning Incorporated with 11.9 percent stabilized efficiency. “Our achievements could become a breakthrough for thin film silicon technology,” says Michael Buscher, Oerlikon Group CEO.


Even champions sometimes stumble. Q-Cells SE was established in 1999, and quickly grew into one of the largest solar cell manufacturers in the world. It did not escape the financial turmoil of 2009, however, reporting losses of 1.36 billion Euros ($1.84 billion) in February 2010. This was quickly followed by a very public resignation of CEO Anton Milner. The company blamed a drastic decline in prices and a time lag in its Calyxo subsidiary becoming competitive.

After a restructuring, the company is back on track with a new CEO, Nedim Cen. Karlheinz Hornung, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Q-Cells SE, said: “The new strategy to develop Q-Cells into a provider of photovoltaic solutions is on its way. With the launch of solar modules we have taken the first successful step which is reflected in a positive operative result for the second quarter 2010. Yet, the way ahead is still strewn with obstacles which I am certain Nedim Cen, the Management Board and the whole Q-Cells team will handle appropriately.”  

As just one example of Q-Cells recent activity, in August 2010, the company installed a solar power station on behalf of the investment company HEP Kapital and in partnership with thermovolt AG with a power capacity of 5.3MW on a 19-hectare brownfield site close to Spremberg in the federal state of Brandenburg, Germany. At the ceremony, the investor and general contractor inaugurated the solar park in the presence of Ralf Christoffers, Brandenburg’s Minister for the Economy and European Affairs, and of Dr. Klaus-Peter Schulze, the Mayor of Spremberg. Around EUR 16 million in total has been invested in the solar power station, whose construction was initiated in mid-June. With just under 24,000 crystalline solar modules, the facility will supply 1,900 households with power and in the process save 4,400 tons of CO2 emissions.

Applied Materials (AMAT)

Although grand plans as a supplier of turn-key SunFab lines were recently abandoned as part of a restructuring, Applied Materials remains a PV champion, with strong efforts in both thin film and crystalline PV manufacturing equipment. “This next generation of PV solar is really a solutions game that is far more complex than just tool making,” noted Charlie Gay, president of Applied Solar. “And it’s precisely why I joined Applied Materials. Applied has the unique perspective and experience to deliver precisely these kind of manufacturing solutions to market, having successfully done the same for both the semiconductor and display industries,” he said. Read an in-depth interview with Gay in the article “Champions of photovoltaic technology

Renewable Energy Corporation ASA (REC)

REC is a vertically integrated company, controlling all the steps of the PV value chain. REC is one of the largest producers of polysilicon and wafers for PV, a manufacturer of solar cells and modules, and is also involved in solar systems integration in selected PV segments. Founded in Norway in 1996, REC employs close to 4,000 people worldwide. In 2009, REC reported revenues of 1 billion euro ($1.3 billion). Production operations are in place in the U.S., Norway, Sweden and a new plant is currently ramping up production in Singapore.


Sovello operates three production plants in Bitterfeld-Wolfen, Sachsen-Anhalt, Germany. The first plant, SV1, started production in June 2006. In June 2007, the second production facility, SV2, came online. With SV3, the third plant recently finished, Sovello’s nominal production capacity has reached about 180MW.

The company licenses String Ribbon technology from Evergreen Solar in Massachusetts. In September of this year, the company’s X-series products successfully passed the salt-spray-test administered by TÜV Rheinland, making them suitable for solar installations near the coast or on islands. Sovello was acquired by Ventizz Capital Fund IV L.P. in April of 2010.

Schneider Electric

Focused on making energy safe, reliable, and efficient, the company’s 100,000+ employees achieved sales of more than 15.8 billion euros ($20.6 billion) in 2009, through an active commitment to help individuals and organizations “Make the most of their energy.”

Again, a single example serves to illustrate how the company is a PV champion: Schneider Electric is the main construction, operation and maintenance company on an ambitious solar energy project in the Puglia region of Italy. Announced in September of 2010, the PV plant will have a yearly power output of 56GW, which corresponds to the requirements of a town of 40,000 inhabitants, without the 28,000 tons of carbon emissions an equivalent fossil-fuel-fired power plant would produce. With a total power of 43MW peak, the park will consist of 600,000 solar panels over 250 acres.

Schneider Electric will implement an integrated, end-to-end solution and will act as the sole contact for plant management for AES SOLE Italia. Its products and services cover every requirement, from generation to the grid, including: engineering studies, project & construction management; supply and erection of mechanical structures; inverter substations and grid connection substations; general monitoring system for the power plant; fencing, access control, video surveillance; operation and maintenance services.

S.A.G. Solarstrom

S.A.G. Solarstrom AG, located in Freiburg, Germany, installs plants of all sizes, both in Germany and abroad. The company offers additional services covering the entire life cycle of photovoltaic plants, including forecasting an energy services, yield reports, remote monitoring and plant maintenance, as well as insurance and financing. In addition to their foreign subsidiaries, the group also owns meteocontrol GmbH, which offers photovoltaic plant monitoring, solar energy forecasts as well as quality audits and yield reports. Meteocontrol currently has around 14,000 plants with a total output of 1.6 GWp in monitoring.

“The very nature of our industry categorization means that we are committed to sustainability. However, for S.A.G. Solarstrom AG sustainability does not mean simply reducing the CO2 emissions with each new plant, but also ensuring that our plants have a long life cycle and that the components do not need to be replaced after just a few years”, says Dr Karl Kuhlmann, CEO of S.A.G. Solarstrom AG.

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Renewable Energy World's content team members help deliver the most comprehensive news coverage of the renewable energy industries. Based in the U.S., the UK, and South Africa, the team is comprised of editors from Clarion Energy's myriad of publications that cover the global energy industry.

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