Thursday, January 27, 2011

Frame-Free Solar Panels - BIPV

Global Solar Energy Inc. set out 15 years ago to invent a flexible solar power panel for soldiers.

Since accomplishing that mission, Global Solar - which operates Arizona's only manufacturing plant for thin-film photovoltaic cells - has had to reinvent itself to adapt to a rapidly changing market.

Global - which was initially funded by an investment subsidiary of Tucson-base UniSource Energy Corp. - hit the market with its portable solar power packs in 2004 and still sells those products to militaries worldwide.

In recent years, the company has ramped up production of strings of thin-film solar cells for large-scale solar installations, opening a 100,000-square-foot plant on South Rita Road and another in Berlin in 2008.

The company hoped to capitalize on a lower production cost for its thin-film copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) photovoltaic cells, amid a run-up in prices for more common silicon-based modules.

"Everything was ripe for us to come in with a lower-cost product and really be able to compete," Global Solar President and CEO Jeffrey Britt said.

But by late 2008, the highly cyclical price of silicon-based photovoltaics was plummeting, due to recessionary demand pinch and oversupply and a flood of low-cost modules from China.

"Our business model was kind of flipped around - we were no longer significantly cheaper than crystal silicon, we were only competitive," said Britt. "When you have a new technology, you have to have some kind of incentive for a customer to try a new technology, and if it can't be price, what is it?"

The company decided to shift its focus to a new product line in "building integrated photovoltaics" (BIPV) - systems that are applied directly to a building, without glass-clad frames or mounting frames.

In 2009, Global announced a partnership with Dow Chemical Co. to develop photovoltaic roofing shingles as part of Dow's participation in a U.S. Energy Department initiative to commercialize American solar technologies.

In September, the company rolled out a new flexible solar module, the PowerFLEX BIPV, which consists of Global's CIGS modules laminated into 300-watt strips. The strips can be directly attached to rooftops with adhesive. That avoids the need for costly and heavy glass-clad panels and mounting frames.

"We've really gone back to our roots of a flexible product that is lightweight," Britt said. "We're no longer taking our flexible solar cells and laminating them behind a piece of glass, which sort of takes all of that advantage away."

Marketing the product mainly through roofing materials companies, the company is building up orders and ramping up production of its new stick-on panels.

The panels start out with strings of PV cells produced in Global's factory, which employs about 130 people at 8500 S. Rita Road. Reels of thin, flexible stainless steel are run through four different coating processes, adding thin layers of molybdenum, CIGS materials, cadmium sulfide and indium tin oxide.

From there, the reels are sent through a machine that prints circuitry in conductive silver ink. The material is then slit and strung with conductor material to form module strings, which are automatically tested under artificial sunlight for quality and efficiency before being packaged for panel makers or cut for other products.

On the company's new BIPV panel production line, the solar strings are arranged in roughly 19-foot-long strips, laminated with durable vinyl with an adhesive backing fitted with plugs that allow installers to quickly link panels.

Global is marketing its BIPV product in the U.S., Europe and Asia, but Britt sees more immediate opportunity initially in Europe and Asia, where land is relatively scarce and building codes favor building-integrated PV because of its light weight.

France, Italy, Spain and Germany have special incentives geared toward BIPV, while Japan has very strict building codes because of earthquakes, Britt said.

"You can imagine having a heavy load of glass on a rooftop is not an ideal situation in an earthquake-prone country," Britt said.

Industry analysts expect BIPV to be a leading sector of solar growth in the next few years.

NanoMarkets LC, a Virginia-based market research firm, projects that worldwide shipments of BPIV products will grow from about $1.9 billion in 2010 to nearly $6 billion in 2014 and more than $16 billion by 2017.

While Britt declined to discuss revenue figures, he noted that the company has an annual production capacity of about 75 megawatts, or 75 million watts, with a wholesale value of about $1 per watt.

Light weight is an asset

The head of a local solar energy installation company that is currently testing Global's new BIPV panels said he sees wide potential for the product.

The product's light weight makes it ideal for carports, which often can't bear the weight of glass-encased, metal-framed panels, said George Villec, owner of GeoInnovation LLC since 2004.

"The glass is so heavy, sometimes you have to redesign the whole structure," he said. Putting the system on existing flat building roofs is trickier, Villec said, because you have to worry about adherence and water management.

Even so, Global's plant is important to give consumers a choice of a U.S.-made product and to keep Tucson competitive in the solar market, Villec said.

Until recently, Global was the only commercial-scale manufacturer of PV cells in Arizona.

Suntech, a Chinese maker of silicon PV modules, recently opened a cell manufacturing plant in Goodyear, just west of Phoenix.

"I think it's critical," Villec said of Global's expanding presence. "We're losing business to Phoenix, which is wooing some of these companies like Suntech."

PV shingles not far off

Arizona is home to larger solar companies, including Tucson-based Solon Corp., which assembles its PV panels from cells made elsewhere. Solon owns a 20-percent stake in Global Solar and uses its PV strings in some applications.

Tempe-based First Solar Inc. is the world's biggest thin-film supplier, but it makes its cadmium telluride cells in plants in Ohio, Germany and Malaysia.

Britt said Global will continue to make and sell portable PV charging systems, which it supplies to about 15 militaries worldwide.

"It's actually a fairly small business, but with good margins," he said.

Global is still working with Dow on the PV shingles, which are expected to hit the retail market later this year, Britt said.

Meanwhile, the company continues to boost the energy-conversion efficiency of its thin-film cells.

In 2009, the company set a federally certified benchmark for cell efficiency at 15.45 percent. Global's production cells have an efficiency approaching 12 percent, and Britt said the company could approach the 15-percent efficiency mark for production cells in the next three to four years.


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