With New SD Factory, Soitec Joins Top 3 U.S. Solar Panel Makers

12/19/12Follow @bvbigelow

In his first official proclamation, newly elected San Diego Mayor Bob Filner declared today as “Soitec Day” in the nation’s eighth largest city, capping a grand opening ceremony for a new solar panel factory completed here recently by Soitec, the French semiconductor manufacturer.

The automated plant was designed to make concentrating photovoltatic (CPV) solar panels for use in solar power plants throughout the American Southwest.

Soitec signed five contracts with San Diego Gas & Electric (“SDG&E”) in early 2011 to provide a combined total of 155 megawatts CPV solar generated electricity, enough renewable energy for more than 60,000 households. The contracts, approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, stipulated that Soitec’s CPV panels would be manufactured in San Diego. Altogether, the projects are intended to produce enough renewable solar energy to serve more than 60,000 households a year.

Soitec also has agreed to supply its CPV panels for a 150-megawatt project under development in Imperial County by Tenaska Solar Ventures. Plans call for electricity generated by the Tenaska solar plant to be sent into the power grid via SDG&E’s Sunrise Powerlink, a high-voltage transmission line completed in June.

With the new San Diego manufacturing plant, Soitec becomes one of the top three manufacturers of solar modules in the U.S., according to André-Jacques Auberton-Hervé, Soitec’s chairman and CEO

Soitec acquired the 176,000-square-foot building on 14.8 acres from Sony a year ago. Soitec installed a fully automated CPV production line that became operational in October. The new facility represents a total investment of more than $150 million for Soitec, Auberton-Hervé said to nearly 300 Soitec employees and guests who attended the event.

The total investment includes a $25 million grant the U.S. Department of Energy awarded Soitec in June to help support construction of the facility in San Diego. Such grants are intended to encourage foreign companies with “differentiated technologies, innovative products, and efficient business models” to establish manufacturing plants in the United States, said Lidija Sekaric, a DOE administrator at the event and who is overseeing photovoltaic technology development under the DOE’s “SunShot” initiative.

In his prepared remarks, Auberton-Hervé noted that the global population is projected to exceed 9.4 billion by 2050, which would double the existing world demand for energy. Meeting that demand also would require a 50 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions to maintain atmospheric CO2 at current levels, he said.

Soitec’s CPV solar technology is ideal for use in large, utility-scale power plants, where renewable solar energy can be generated more cost effectively, Auberton-Hervé said.

The new San Diego plant currently employs about 125 people, and could employ as many as 450 people if it is expanded to full capacity, according to Auberton-Hervé.

Soitec’s proprietary CPV modules use Fresnel lenses that concentrate sunlight 500 times, focusing the sun’s radiant energy onto high-efficiency photovoltaic semiconductors, which convert the intensified light into DC electricity at 38 percent efficiency. The overall efficiency of the module is lower, however, and produces AC electricity suitable for use on the power grid at a 26 percent efficiency, according to Clark Crawford, Soitec’s U.S. vice president of sales and business development. That is still two to three times more efficient than a conventional photovoltaic solar panel, Crawford says.

Soitec officials said the company plans to ship its first CPV module from the San Diego facility in January.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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