Applied Materials isn't in the business of designing mounting systems to support solar panels.
But the Santa Clara, Calif.-based factory equipment maker has engineered a rack that it hopes will help its customers find a wider acceptance for the supersized solar panels that can be made from its SunFab equipment line.
Applied plans to erect a prototype of its mounting system at its campus by the end of this month, said Jonathan Pickering, vice president of global marketing and business development at Applied.
The company's engineers hope the new design would not only support the enormous solar panels that can be made with Applied's equipment, it also would be able to shave installation costs.
The company plans to offer the design without charge to its customers or developers wishing to use its customers' solar panels.
"We want our customers to have access to designs that they can take with them to the developers," Pickering said. "We want to use off-the-shelve materials that you can buy from multiple sources so that it's low cost."
Applied develops and sells equipment for making amorphous silicon solar panels. It's a type of technology in the early stages of commercialization. Some of Applied's customers, such Sunfilm in Germany and Green Energy Technology in Taiwan, only began production over the past year.
Applied isn't the only company making equipment for producing amorphous silicon. But it has staked a claim for being able to produce panels that are much, much larger than others.
In fact, each panel reaches 5.7 square meters – that's eight times the size of a cadmium-telluride solar panel made by First Solar.
The large amorphous silicon panel is a sight to behold, but it also presents a tough challenge when it comes to production and installation.
Some amorphous silicon panel makers said they opted to buy factory equipment from Applied competitors because they were concerned about quality control during the production process and challenges in setting them up in the field.
"It's difficult to install such large panels," said Frank O'Young, CEO of Sunner Solar in Taiwan, during an interview in June. Sunner opted to buy its amorphous silicon thin-film equipment from Japanese firms Ulvac and Nisshinbo.
Applied said the time it takes to make large panels is the same as for small panels in certain key manufacturing steps, so it is in fact more efficient to make large panels. It is a formula that has worked well for the flat panel display and semiconductor businesses, the two other core markets for Applied.
Pickering also pointed out that Applied's equipment, branded SunFab, could slice the full size panels into smaller ones.
Installing such large panels also can be tricky. Applied started seeing racks designed by its customers and developers about a year ago and recognized that engineering a mounting system hefty enough to support its full size panels could remove a thorny issue for developers.
"When our customers go to developers, and developers evaluate the panels and say, 'What's the mounting structures and costs?' and our customers can say this is ground mount structure we recommend," Pickering said.
A growing number of solar energy equipment makers have invested time and money on designing racks that they believe would shave installation costs and complement their other offerings.
Solyndra, for example, has touted its low-profile mounting system as key to lowering costs of erecting its tubes-filled solar panels on flat commercial rooftops.
Developers that have come up with mounting systems for Applied's panels include Gehrlicher Solar in Germany.
Applied's design is meant for ground-mounted systems. It's angular like many other types of racks out there, but comes with integrated back rails, Pickering said. Applied's panels could be shipped pre-assembled with the back rails, which are bolted into steel strips. The steel would be a standard, construction-grade variety that is easy to find, Pickering added.
It's a reference design that could be modified to satisfy local codes and soil conditions.
How much savings could the design yield? Pickering said the company is still working on figuring that out. Over the next six months, Applied expects to see large projects being installed that make use of the new mounting system. Those installations will then provide some empirical data.
Pickering also declined to disclose manufacturing costs for the mounting structure.
Photo of a mounting system design by Applied Materials.