It's tough times for concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) solar firms. Amonix shut down its Las Vegas production facility in July of last year and has gone quiet. SolFocus has been looking for a buyer for some time now; GreenVolts is out of business. JDSU has quietly exited the CPV cell market after acquiring QuantaSol. Semprius, REhnu, and a few other startups are still exploring the sector.
But only Soitec seems to be deploying large-scale CPV systems and providing some much-needed life to the moribund CPV sector.
Vahan Garboushian, founder of now-dormant Amonix, noted recently that what CPV needs is a supply chain, large-scale manufacturing, consolidation of the technology, and a big corporate backer instead of VCs looking to flip companies in a few years' time.
Soitec is perhaps the only CPV company that meets most of the requirements on that list. The French firm builds the multi-junction semiconductor, the CPV systems themselves, and also helps develop the project. Vertical integration accomplished.
In May, Soitec added to the recent flurry of concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) efficiency records by hitting 43.6 percent efficiency with a four-junction solar cell at 319 suns -- a feat confirmed by the Fraunhofer ISE Calibration Laboratory. (Last month, researchers at NREL announced a 31.1 percent conversion efficiency for a two-junction PV cell of less than 1 sun. Sharp just hit a Fraunhofer-Institute-confirmed, world-record 44.4 percent for its triple-junction solar cell at 302 suns.)
Soitec uses proprietary methods to bond photovoltaic semiconductor layers together with a minimum of lattice mismatch drama. The firm aims to get to 50 percent chip efficiency within the next few years and to reach module efficiencies approaching 40 percent.
In 2012, Soitec raised a $212 million "capital increase," of which half to two-thirds was to be devoted to the CPV efforts of the firm. So corporate backing is in place.
The firm just completed building the 1.5-megawatt (AC) Newberry Solar 1 project in San Bernardino County, California, the largest CPV project in the state. Power from Newberry Solar 1 will be sold to Southern California Edison under a twenty-year power purchase agreement (PPA). The Newberry plant uses Soitec’s 28-kilowatt CX-S530 CPV systems.
Those modules are built in Soitec's 280-megawatt capacity CPV factory in San Diego. That factory is the third largest solar production facility in the U.S., according to Soitec. Last year, Soitec scored $25 million from the DOE's SUNPATH program to help to support the 176,000-square factory. Clark Crawford, VP of Sales and Business Development, notes that 140 megawatts of that factory capacity is already operational and that the plant will eventually employ 450 people.
Like most CPV aspirants, Soitec targets the utility-scale market in high DNI regions. According to Gaetan Borgers, EVP for the solar group at Soitec, while the PV market is set to double in the next five years, the CPV market will triple in size. He said that the markets of Germany and Italy will contract, "but many other markets are going to open."
"We are setting up in markets with opportunity for the future," said Borgers. He repeats the list of CPV benefits: low water needs, easy on the environment, easy to permit, low impact on land, and low degradation. Borgers cites a track record of installations in the UAE, Chile, Egypt, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and Namibia.
Soitec's 44-megawatt flagship project in Touws River, South Africa was initiated in September 2010. Demo plants were erected "to demonstrate the value of the product to the locals." Soitec was selected as a preferred bidder in December 2011 and signed a twenty-year PPA with Eskom in November 2012. Earlier this year, debt was financed through a bond, and the project is expected to be completed in 2014.
When completed, the South African CPV project will be the largest CPV plant in the world. (Currently, the world's largest CPV deployment is the 30-megawatt Alamosa site in Colorado owned by The Carlyle Group with hardware from Amonix.)
Soitec executives see the firm as reaching a levelized cost of energy (LCOE) of 8 cents per kilowatt-hour. Clark Crawford said that the company has a project pipeline of 300 megawatts of signed PPAs.
CPV still has immense challenges ahead -- but Soitec looks to have some missing pieces like bankability and scale more firmly in place.
Borgers added, "The U.S. will be our number-one short-term market -- and we are ready."