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Solaicx Begins Full-Scale Production of "Solar-Optimized" Silicon Wafers in Oregon

Solaicx is a manufacturer of silicon ingots and wafers for photovoltaics, and the company recently opened a new manufacturing facility in Portland, OR. The plant will start out producing about 32 megawatts per year, and at full capacity it expects to employ 180 skilled workers and churn out 180 megawatts per year. Solaicx says its proprietary manufacturing technology yields low-cost, high quality cells that are optimized for solar energy applications. Why locate in Oregon, and not Asia? What is it about the Solaicx process that could make solar "affordable?" Denis Du Bois interviews the company's CEO, Bob Ford. (podcast) (photos) (transcript)


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Solaicx opened this plant in Portland, Oregon, in November 2007. At full capacity it expects to churn out 180 megawatts per year of solar-optimized silicon wafers. (Solaicx photo)

Denis Du Bois: Solaicx says it's found a way to make solar electricity more affordable. So, briefly, what are you doing differently that would bring costs down?

Bob Ford: Fundamentally, we’ve taken the approach that the solar industry needs to be a materials handling business. So we had converted a batch crystal growing process, which is the foundation of the vast majority of modules that you see on roof tops today, into a continuous manufacturing process. Inherent in that is the dramatically reduced cost in the process. Beyond that, material we produce is better quality which enables our customers, the solar cell manufacturers, to produce higher quality, higher conversion efficient solar cells. It’s those two facts that really enable a dramatic change in the cost structure of photovoltaics.

Denis: How dramatic? How much cost reduction can you really achieve? Are we talking about grid parity yet?

Bob Ford: I think there's a clear path to grid parity, and that’s not done in isolation. If you think of today’s marketplace, the wafer represents about 55 percent of the photovoltaic module. Even when silicon pricing comes back down, that will constitute about 45 percent of the module cost. Being able to reduce that by as much as 50 percent, while enabling our customer to get higher convergence efficiency, means that we can get down to grid parity in the near future.

Denis: You've been producing wafers this way, out of your pilot plant in CA, where there's a strong market for solar. What led you to choose Oregon for your first hi-volume plant?

Bob Ford: Actually, it was quite simple. We looked for the highest concentration of skilled labor in the United States for a firstt manufacturing facility. Oregon has a high concentration of semiconductor wafer manufacturers. It also had a smattering of solar wafer manufacturers. So first and foremost it was about accessing that talent pool that already exists in the Portland area.

Secondarily though, is the work ethic of the people in Portland. Coming out of the Silicon Valley where turnover is pretty rampant, historically speaking, people in the Northwest tend to want to stay with a company for a long time, and we like that. We like to hold onto the knowledge that’s created.

Then you have a whole host of other aspects that helped drive the decision for Portland. Certainly the economics of it, the lower costs of doing business in the area; the supporting infrastructure, in other words that infrastructure that has been designed to support the semiconductor wafer manufacturing industry is the same kind of infrastructure we need. Certainly the incentives are very attractive as well, particularly for a small company like ours that is investing heavily in plants and equipment and has an opportunity to recover some of that investment through tax credits.

Solaicx has developed a process that it says will reduce the cost of photovoltaics. This machine, a feeder-grower, is part of the proprietary process. (Solaicx photo)

Denis: Where will most of your wafers end up? Will they go to manufacturers in the Northwest?

Bob Ford: They will actually go to manufacturers all over the world. Interesting about what it is that we do, is that the end product can be air freighted anywhere in the world, relatively inexpensively. You have concentrations of solar cell manufacturers in Asia and Europe, and a few here in the United States. But it’s truly a global business, and the expectation is that we will be servicing all of those markets. Now our target customer base is really the largest solar cell manufacturers. So if you take the top fifteen producers, you’re talking about the vast majority of solar cells made today.

Denis: From everything we read these days, the demand for solar modules exceeds supply, and I assume that goes for wafers as well. What's keeping you from ramping up faster, if not demand?

Bob Ford: We have a new production system; it’s a remarkable production system, but we want to make sure that we can walk before we run. Fundamentally, once we get the Portland plant up and operating and we work out some of the things that are inherent in production systems, then we would ramp up more quickly.

Denis: Have you already sold your first production runs?

Bob Ford: Yes, we’re in kind of an interesting position, you hit the nail on the head. As the demand outpaces supply on the modules, so it is with solar cells, so it is with every aspect of the value chain, and so it is with the wafers that we’ll be producing. We have a very attractive value proposition to the customer base. We seem to have a very desirable appeal to the large solar cell manufacturers. So we’re in very good shape in that respect.

Denis: As we speak, there's an energy bill working its way through Congress that may or may not include an extension of the investment tax credit. What difference will that make for Solaicx?

Bob Ford: I think we’re operating on the fundamental premise that solar needs to be cost effective. Ultimately, I have a personal view that subsidies worldwide are a little too robust, which has created a supply/demand imbalance and has actually driven costs up. But in the United States I think we need that catalyst to help drive adoption here in the states. So that investment tax credit would be very attractive to Solaicx.

Denis: Your cells could go into any number of PV products. What's your vision for solar's greatest contribution?

Bob Ford: I really believe that there’s an elegance in having a rooftop point-of-view’s power generation where you eliminate the need for distribution and transmission lines, where you really have a way to augment the grid connected power.

Obviously solar is not going to replace all other forms, it’s limited in its operating hours, and in that respect the idea of having an augmentation to the grid supplied power is very attractive. When you add in the costs of battery and so on, the expense goes up. Now in remote applications that makes sense. I think that the bulk of the growth in the industry comes on the heels of the roof-top grid connected applications. The near term horizon will be along those lines.


Listen to the Podcast (9-minute mp3)