DOE Loan to Help Fund Two Plants

An expected solar energy boom in the United States and the continued quest to achieve grid parity are factors behind a Department of Energy loan agreement that will help a Massachusetts company build two new plants and create hundreds of permanent jobs.

The DOE’s $150 million loan guarantee to Lexington-based 1366 Technologies will be used to scale the company’s direct wafer technology at a fraction of current costs.

The first commercial facility, a 20-megawatt plant located in the company’s home state of Massachusetts, is scheduled to be fully operational by 2013 and will produce 5 million wafers a year and will employ about 100 people. Construction on the 1,000-MW facility is expected to begin in 2013 and create 300 permanent positions. The second plant could produce 250 million wafers annually. The location of the second U.S. facility has not been decided.

The manufacturing plants will help the company take advantage of expected growth in the industry. According to a European Photovoltaic Industry Association outlook through 2015 released in April, the United States could increase its solar PV capacity from 2.5 GW in 2010 to nearly 32 GW by 2015 under an aggressive policy support model. Because of the downward trend of production costs and the expected increase in transportation, the report expects the U.S. to achieve a growth in domestic manufacturing.

“There’s no reason the solar industry can’t continue to grow significantly,” said 1366 CEO Frank van Mierlo on Friday. He also believes that by the end of the decade, in part because of the potential savings from his company’s technology, that PV will be the lowest-cost option for energy.

Since its founding in 2008, 1366 Technologies has raised $46 million from equity investors, which has helped the company bring its direct wafer solar cell technology into production. Von Mierlo sees the loan agreement, and a previous $4 million infusion of federal money in 2009, as a strong validation of the technology and an enabling factor to ramping up manufacturing while working toward grid parity.

“This project is a game-changer that could dramatically lower the cost of photovoltaic solar cells.  It is exactly the kind of innovation that puts America at the forefront of the global clean energy race,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “As global demand for solar cells increases, this kind of technology will help the U.S. increase its market share and be more competitive with other countries such as China, which currently accounts for 60 percent of the world supply of multicrystalline wafers.”

Direct wafer technology is a relatively new process that wastes far less silicon during manufacturing. Direct wafer cells integrate into the existing silicon photovoltaics’ supply chain.

“New technology development is very difficult,” said von Mierlo. “If you truly want to change a cost structure, it requires a significant amount of tenacity and broad support.”

Watch a video of the manufacturing process below.

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