Palm Springs, California: Reporting from the Greentech Media Solar Summit

Ten years ago, the entire global solar PV industry was in the 175-megawatt range. Nowadays, 175 megawatts is the size of a really good order for just one of the PV heavyweights represented on the "Gigawatt Scale" panel at the Greentech Media event.

Representatives from some of the biggest producers of solar panels spoke about the challenges and outlook of being a one- or two-gigawatt-per-year manufacturer.

Solar Panel Heavyweight

2011 Nameplate Capacity (gigawatts)


2.4 GW

Canadian Solar

2.0 GW


1.7 GW


1.7 GW


1.3 GW

There are certainly other solar firms in the gigawatt club, including First Solar and Sharp Solar. Newcomers such as Solar Frontier also aspire to joining those ranks.

Here's what our panelists had to say:

Andrew Beebe, the CCO at Suntech, said that at the gigawatt scale, "Supply chain is everything for us."  And although Suntech has opened a small plant in Arizona, "Arizona doesn't have the supply chain and logistics" that Suntech has established in China.

When asked if Suntech would consider downstream integration as SunPower and First Solar have ably done, Beebe said that Suntech's model for the future was to use EPCs like Zachry, a firm that has built 90 gigawatts of fossil fuel plants. Beebe added, "Why take on Bechtel?" He said that, "We want to partner with those guys -- we will never get in front of our customers."

And though a few gigawatts sounds like a lot, Beebe added that "We're just getting started," continuing, "There's still room for breakthrough technology."

Robert Petrina, the Managing Director of Yingli Green Energy Americas, comes from a firm that, like the rest of our panel, is vertically integrated except for making polysilicon. Yingli has been active in the U.S. for just three years, but estimates their U.S. market share at about 10 percent, representing about 12 percent of Yingli's global sales. Petrina echoed a common refrain of this panel, emphasizing a "focus on controlling the supply chain," because "moving 1.5 gigawatts is much different than moving 150 megawatts."

Petrina also boasted of 56 megawatts in four utility-scale projects in the U.S., an accomplishment many thought would be difficult to attain by a Chinese vendor but that is now a regular event.

Robert Muhn, the VP of Sales and Marketing at Trina Solar, told a story similar to Yingli. The firm is vertically integrated from polysilicon to modules. Muhn also spoke of the limits of the economies of scale once you get to gigawatt scale and explained that that's why Trina is focused on efficiency gains. He said, "Companies are reaching a plateau of costing out, so we're working on efficiency."

Canadian Solar's U.S. VP of Sales, Alan King, called Canadian "the new kids on the block," but saw the firm doubling shipments globally from 1 gigawatt in 2010 to 2 gigawatts in 2011.
Boris Schubert, The COO of Q Cells North America, emphasized a "focus on really understanding the end-customer's needs."  He pointed out that a solar power plant is an assembly process, like "putting windows on a fence," and that the end customer is not buying solar panels, but rather a return on an energy investment.

Welcome to the gigawatt era.