Kunitomi Plant: New Facility Helps Solar Frontier Compete in Global PV Market

published: 2011-09-09 15:44 | editor: | category: Analysis

The thin-film company Frontier Solar, -- once known as Showa Shell Solar -- began shipping solar modules from its brand new Kunitomi Plant in February 2011. By April, the firm started filling commercial orders from the state-of-the art facility. The 900-megawatt production capacity factory is the world's largest copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS or CIS) manufacturing facility. Frontier Solar now has ten times the production capacity to produce its CIGS solar panels. Company officials also say the plant is ten times more efficient than the last plant it built.

The three-story high, 158,000 square meter plant took 16 months to build. Located on Miyazaki prefecture, it is also Japan's largest solar module plant. When the plant opened, Solar Frontier's vice-president of manufacturing Hiroshi Yoshida stated, the facility “involved some of the most advance production automation in the industry.”

The investment represents a $1.2 billion (USD) wager that its CIGS technology will capture a larger share of the solar market. Solar Frontier has a headquarters in Tokyo, Japan. It also has offices in Santa Clara, California, Germany and Saudi Arabia. A subsidiary of Showa Shell Sekiyu, Solar Frontier is 35% owned by Royal Dutch Shell.

Only 426 MW of CIGS modules where sold worldwide in 2010. At full capacity, the Kunitomi factory doubles that amount. Last year, Solar Frontier sold about 100 MW of its panels. According to company COO and Vice-president Greg Ashley, the company has its sight set on the cadmium telluride competitors, he said, "It will take two to three years in this race to catch them. There are competitors in the market who are intimidated. We're not intimidated.” Solar Frontier targets the commercial rooftops and utility-scale markets in the North America marketplace.

Unlike its cadmium telluride competitors -- Sharp and First Solar, the company has not made any plans to venture into the solar development segment of the market. Ashley said the company does not want to be in “the position of competing with our customers”. Other companies specializing on CIGS/CIS includes NanoSolar, MiaSolé, HelioVolt, and SoloPower.

Solar Frontier conducts research and testing of production technology at its Atsugi Research Center. The facility matches match any condition for any step along the manufacturing processes from processing raw material to assembling solar panels. The laboratory allows the company to fine tune its manufacturing processes.

CIGS Technology

The three primary thin film technologies are amorphous silicon (a-Si), cadmium telluride (CdTe), copper indium (gallium), and diselenide (CIS or CIGS). Solar Frontier main competitor, First Solar, uses CdTe technology. The material is easy to process and suitable for large-scale deliveries. Behind silicone, CdTe is the most commonly used solar cell material. CdTe has the distinction as the only thin-film product to outpace crystalline silicone photovoltaic with lower price per watt peak power. First Solar reported $0.75 price per watt.

Thin film solar cell processes use about 100 times less silicone material than conventional silicone crystalline. CIGS/CIS manufacturing uses about 60 percent less energy during the manufacturing process compared to crystalline silicon. A CIGS cell absorbs a wider spectrum -- 99% -- of sunlight within the first micrometer of the silicone. CIGS manufacturing processes involve less steps and resources. CIGS is more efficiency than CdTe. CIGS also uses zinc or cadmium sulfide, a lower form of cadmium. 

Challenges

Several years ago, analysts predicted the thin film share of the solar market to grow anywhere from 28 to 35 percent by 2012. With 19% of worldwide solar panel sales in 2009, the forecast seemed on track to achieve the target. However, thin-film share dropped to 13% in 2010. CIS comprised just 2% of the market. 

With higher efficiencies and lower production costs, crystalline silicone solar modules continue its dominance, with a 87% share of the photovoltaic market. Falling PV prices put pressure on all types of thin film manufacturers, including cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium diselenide.

Since 2008, solar module prices have dropped 70%. A spot survey by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) found multi-crystalline silicone modules from China priced under $1.50 per watt.

First Solar dominates the thin film market with six solar panel manufacturing plants -- four in Kulim, Malaysia. The company's has an annual production capacity of 2.2 gigawatts as of Q2. In early August, First Solar dedicated ground in Mesa, Arizona for a 250-megawatt thin-film module factory scheduled to begin operations in Q3 2012. The company has grown beyond thin-film manufacturer into solar development.

Traditionally, CIGS has produced outstanding results in the laboratory. However, firms found it difficult to produce CIGS-based solar panels on a massive scale. Certain characteristics of the materials were not compatible with the equipment, processes, and technological methods. Solar Frontier believes the technology of the Kunitomi plant solves production issues associated with CIGS as well as scalability questions.

Conclusion

With the addition of the Kunitomi plant, Solar Frontier has the capacity to produce a total one gigawatt of panels annually from its three facilities. This production capacity makes it first among manufacturers using CIGS/CIS technology. The firm now has as much production capabilities as Sharp, which rates number two behind First Solar.

In July, Solar Frontier began global shipment of its 150-watt CIS panels. The firm claims the modules have 12.2% effici­ency - higher than First Solar's ­cadmium- telluride­ panels at 11.6%. Solar Frontier plans to increase its performance in the areas of efficiency claims and meeting its production schedule on an ongoing basis.

The company has moved ahead of its initial production schedule ramping up the Kunitomi plant ahead of time to full production capabilities. Some industry watchers took this to mean the plant now operates at full capacity.

The Kunitomi plant will demonstrate whether a CIGS manufacturer can sustain a schedule for the mass production of CIGS solar panels. Shigeaki Kameda, CEO said, “We have also now shown the world that we can scale this technology at speed.”

The timing of the plant's opening happened to coincide with recent events related to the country's nuclear reactors. Even before this occurrence, many analysts believed CIGS was on track to become the dominant thin film technology and command a larger market share. Japan’s passing of a national feed-in-tariff policy also bodes well for CSP developers.

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