Sanyo Electric Co. said it plans to spend $750 million over the next three years to produce its hybrid solar panels and to launch a new thin-film product line that will pit it against Sharp Corp. and other players worldwide, company executives said Tuesday.

The company plans to spend most of the money to begin making amorphous-silicon thin-film panels, which it hopes will help it win utility customers who care more about low-cost production and less about the amount of land it takes to build power plants, said Benjamin Collinwood, marketing development manager for Sanyo Energy Corp., at the Solar Power International conference in San Diego.

Amorphous-silicon panels convert sunlight into electricity less efficiently than traditional panels, including Sanyo's hybrid panels, so companies might have to install more panels –taking up more space – to reach a similarly rated power output. But thin-film companies have said the films can deliver more electricity in real-life conditions and also expect they will be priced less per watt.

Sanyo joins Sharp and other Japanese companies that are beefing up their thin-film production and zeroing in on the U.S. market. The recent passage of an eight-year tax credit program for commercial and residential solar power projects, along with incentives from states and cities, helps make the United States attractive.

Sanyo currently sells two types of hybrid panels using solar cells that consist of amorphous silicon wrapped around monocrystalline silicon, which is often used in conventional solar panels today and can convert more sunlight into electricity than many other materials used today (see diagram).

The company calls its hybrid cell HIT (heterojunction within intrinsic thin layer), and aims to increase its HIT panel production capacity from 260 megawatts in 2007 to 600 megawatts in 2010.

The company produced 155 megawatts of HIT panels in 2006 and 165 megawatts in 2007, said Kazuhiko Suruta, head of the solar business and executive vice president of Sanyo Electric Co., the parent company, at Solar Power on Tuesday. He declined to disclose the panels' per-watt production cost.

The thin-film business Sanyo wants to enter will involve engineering cells and panels that differ from the HIT cells and panels. The thin films will have a layer of amorphous silicon on top of a layer of microcrystalline silicon.

This two-layer approach is called tandem junction, and it's being developed by other companies in Asia, the United States and Europe as well. Applied Materials in the United States and Oerlikon Solar in Switzerland are selling factory equipment to some of these companies. 

Sanyo and Nippon Oil plan to create a joint venture to produce the tandem junction thin-films starting in 2010.

Sanyo has a 5-megawatt amorphous-silicon thin-film factory in Japan, but the products are used to power small electronic and energy storage devices such as batteries and watches. The company has been developing amorphous-silicon solar cells since the 1970s.

In the 1990s, Sanyo began developing the HIT solar cells, which have a layer of amorphous silicon above and below the monocrystalline-silicon layer.

The HIT cells rely mainly on the monocrystalline to convert sunlight into electricity efficiently. The design enables the cell to convert about 22.3 percent of sunlight into electricity in a lab setting with an average efficiency of between 20 percent and 20.5 percent for cells from mass-production, Collinwood said.

The company hopes to increase the HIT cell efficiencies to 23 percent in the lab and 22 percent in production.

Sanyo began mass producing its HIT cells in 1997. The Japanese company first put its HIT cells in panels with a plastic backing, a conventional setup for solar panels on the market today.

The company produced its first HIT panel on glass in 1998 to allow the panels to convert sunlight on both sides. The bifacial panels can produce 30 percent more power per kilowatt-hour than its single-facing panel, the company said.

On Tuesday, Sanyo said it will increase the production of its single- and double-faced HIT panels at its Mexican factory from 20 megawatts per year to 50 megawatts. The company will spend about $7 million to boost production beginning in December.

Suruta said the financial market crisis will likely cause the panel prices to drop and demand to lag, but he believes the demand will improve after 2009.

"We are doing what we can to lower the cost of HIT panels by being more conservative in the ways to build the cells and maybe use less silicon without losing efficiency," Suruta said.  "We would like to get into the [amorphous silicon] thin-film market as quickly as we can. We can use that to help us overcome this market situation."