Roger Little has been, in his words, "in the photovoltaics business since Day One."

He is the CEO of Spire Solar, "probably the oldest company in the PV business" with "40 years" experience of building and supplying turn-key manufacturing equipment for c-Si solar panels.   He spoke about his long-held and long-term vision for U.S. solar in a recent Greentech Media webinar.

Mr. Little has a big idea -- distributed solar module assembly. He sees this as a means by which the U.S. can become the world’s largest solar market.

Little sees solar incentives at the federal and state levels creating demand in the U.S., but also an enormous shortfall in U.S. PV manufacturing, a shortfall that can be addressed with lots of 50 megawatt solar factories (which is what Spire happens to sell).  Little envisions 50 megawatt factories in 50 states.

The U.S. PV market is expanding rapidly and Little said, "We saw it coming and we are poised for explosive growth. The U.S. is going to become the worlds largest market."

According to the CEO, one of the drivers for growth in the U.S. is the prevalence and popularity of the Power Purchase Agreement (PPA).  In Little's view, the need for a 20-year PPA timeline hugely favors the deployment of c-Si as opposed to thin film photovoltaics.  In his view, thin film does not have the reliability record needed to inspire confidence in solar financiers.  However, this point is open for debate.

"Silicon module assembly is the way to get into this business with a modest investment," claimed Little.  He believes U.S.-built modules can compete with foreign sources because of cost reductions in shipping, inventory and supply lines.  Labor costs, in his estimation, even compared to China, are not that significant.

The other drivers for the growth in the U.S. are the stimulus bill and other policy items, such as:

  • 30 percent grant for systems
  • 30 percent tax credit for manufacturing investments
  • ITC extended out to 8 years

Spire estimates that there will be 1 gigawatt of manufacturing capacity in the U.S. in 2012, but demand for far more than than that -- Little sees a shortfall of 1.5 gigawatts of U.S. capacity.  But focusing on small, local PV-module assembly initiatives means, "if you make it in the neighborhood you’re going to create a market in the neighborhood.”  This keeps manufacturing local and creates jobs -- up to 10,000 in the U.S. alone, according to his claims.

According to Little, there is "a huge opportunity to get into the business and manufacture of modules.  You can be cost effective with a module factory at only 10 megawatts in size.  The capital investment for a 10 megawatt module site can be as inexpensive as $2 million."

Little claims there are other cost savings to be had with domestic and local manufacturing:

  • Build 1 kilowatt "super-size" panels
  • Build the modules at the utility solar farm itself and deploy them out the backdoor of the factory.

Little also contends that savings of 4 to 5 cents per watt can be gained from avoiding shipping costs, and further, that 4 to 5 cents per watt can be gained with improved inventory and pipeline management.  He also estimates the labor portion of the module assembly as only 8 cents per watt.  The labor costs are low, "whether you're doing this in the Far East or in Tennessee."

Much of Mr. Little's vision makes sense, although it is still largely hypothetical.  But Little's argument lives and dies by the PPA -- and PPA brokers and bankers would rather use c-Si.  That's probably true, but PPA brokers also want established, bankable vendors, and every local module maker with $2 million to invest might not meet that challenge.  Nevertheless, it remains a creative option for entrepreneurs and localities trying to foster home-grown solar solutions.