Soitec Concentrator Photovoltaic Factory Grand Opening Tour

[San Diego, California USA]

In January, first production modules shipments apparently went to a municipal utility project in Newberry Springs, CA USA.
1 MW Concentrated Photovoltaic (CPV) Demonstration Project at
Fort Irwin.
Tour of the fully automated production line set to become one of the top three solar module manufacturing plants in the US.

From Soitec San Diego

Just before the holidays on December 19, 2012, Soitec SA (EPA:SOI) celebrated the grand opening of the new San Diego manufacturing facility producing Concentrator Photovoltaic (CPV) modules for the North American solar market. For once, the timing was right, and I was able to arrange a daytrip to the San Diego grand opening event.

From Soitec San Diego

Soitec purchased the 176000 square foot (~16400 square meter) Rancho Bernardo facility from Sony Electronics just over a year ago. Complemented by a $25 million SUNPATH (Scaling Up Nascent PV At Home) award from the US Department of Energy (DOE), Soitec invested over $150 million upgrading the facility and installing fully automated manufacturing production lines and processes. For the first phase, two front end assembly lines totaling 140 MWp (MegaWatt-peak) were installed along with 280 MWp of back end module assembly capacity. The first 5th generation (CX-M500 CPV) module was produced in October 2012 as planned. Two additional front end lines are needed to reach the facility’s 280 MWp full production capacity.

In his first proclamation since entering office just two weeks earlier, San Diego Mayor Bob Filner said: “We proclaim this as Soitec Day in the City of San Diego in recognition of your significant investment in clean technology manufacturing.” Not long after the proclamation in political speech time, a symbolic Flip the switch ceremony was held to turn on a CPV module behind the speaker podium and get the factory up and running.

US Project Pipeline
Soitec won two major projects in Southern California to back the new manufacturing facility for Soitec Concentrix CPV technology. In the first, Tenaska Solar Ventures affiliate CSOLAR IV West, LLC, selected Soitec CPV technology for the
Tenaska Imperial Solar Energy Center West project to deliver up to 150 MW of power over a 25 year PPA (Power Purchase Agreement) with San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), a subsidiary of Sempra Energy (NYSE:SRE). Tenaska Solar Ventures is in turn part of the Tenaska, Inc. Development Group. Later in 2011, Soitec Solar Development, LLC, a Soitec subsidiary, had five (5) PPAs with SDG&E representing 155 MW of Soitec CPV capacity in San Diego County approved by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

During the ceremony, Dr. Lidija Sekaric, PV Program Manager, SunShot Initiative, with the US Department of Energy said:

So we are very excited to be working with our partners at the Department of Defense to build what will be the largest CPV power plant on any DoD installation to date from Soitec’s technology coming out of the world’s largest CPV factory.

Her statement confirmed my deduction at the SunShot Grand Challenge that Soitec must be the recipient of the two 1 MW demonstration projects planned by the US Department of Defense (DoD). Thus far, only the Fort Irwin project has been confirmed in the DoD FY 2013 Awards for Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP) Installation Energy and Water Technology Demonstrations:

Soitec Solar, Inc.: Soitec 1MW Concentrated Photovoltaic (CPV) Demonstration Project for On-Site Distributed Power Generation
Demonstration Site: Fort Irwin, CA

Soitec Raises Solar Stakes in San Diego” by Morgan Lee for the San Diego Union-Tribune mentions the initial deployment from Soitec San Diego:

The first sun trackers are bound for a modest-sized solar installation outside Barstow that will supply electricity to a municipal utility.


View Newberry Solar I LLC in a larger map

Well, using this cryptic info I was able to find the Newberry Solar I LLC project in Newberry Springs, CA USA, located just east of Barstow as shown in the Google Map. The 3 MWac (MegaWatt alternating current) project is documented with site maps in:

SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY CEQA Addendum
To The
Mitigated Negative Declaration for a
Conditional Use Permit
Project Number: P200900339

Concentrix Solar Inc. acquired the original flat plate PV project from Solutions for Utilities and later transferred it to Newberry Solar 1, LLC, a subsidiary of Soitec Solar Development LLC, for conversion to CPV. The 3MWac are supposed to be connected into the distribution lines of Southern California Edison (SCE), an Edison International (NYSE:EIX) company. However, I was only able to find a 1.5 MW Executed CREST (California Renewable Energy Small Tariff) Project for Newberry Solar I, LLC. The CREST Program is SCE’s implementation of the AB 1969 Feed-in Tariff (FIT) program regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). So perhaps there is another offtaker for the 1.5 MW balance?

Outside the US, Soitec achieved a significant CPV milestone when Moody’s assigned (P)Baa2.za rating to proposed notes for the 44 MWp Touwsrivier solar project in South Africa. The Soitec SDG&E PPA projects have not yet closed financing.

Job, Jobs, Jobs
Housing a former Sony assembly line and converted repair depot, the Soitec facility was completely reconstructed except for the roof and four walls. The M+W U.S., Inc., subsidiary of the
M+W Group, acted as the general contractor for the facility and employed over 280 people at peak construction. Soitec captured the extensive construction, equipment move in, and shake out in a time-lapse video scored to “Let’s get it started”!

This was the defining example of “Soitec Time: doing things at the speed of Soitec” first mentioned by Mayor Filner in his remarks.

Soitec San Diego began 2012 with 20 employees and ended the year with 125 employees. At full capacity, Soitec expects to create 450 jobs including the joint venture Reflexite Soitec Optical Technology, LLC.

Factory Tour
After a ceremonial French and Soitec style toast and luncheon, the tours of the state of the art, fully automated CPV production facility began in earnest.

Alas, photography was not allowed on the factory tour. Before the ceremonies began, I snapped a few photos of substrate arrays stacked in cassettes at the start of the solar cell assembly line. That’s when I was interrupted and told photos were not permitted.

From Soitec San Diego

Before substrate assembly, the III-V triple junction solar cell wafers must be singulated and mounted on wafer tape. Each wafer was said to hold about 1000 cells rated at about 1 Watt each. The Soitec cells are laser cut as hexagons to optimize wafer material utilization. Our group was shown a presorted wafer, and a handful of cells were inked to mark them as out of spec. Soitec has said multiple sources of III-V triple junction solar cells have been qualified for the CX-S530 CPV System. However, AZUR SPACE Solar Power GmbH appears to receive the bulk of the orders to date.

During his keynote, Soitec Chairman and CEO Dr. André-Jacques Auberton-Hervé said:

Our cells shipped today have an energy yield of 38% close to 40%, but Soitec is developing a new type of cell and the aim is to achieve 50% of yield transforming light to electricity.

At the first solar cell assembly step, a solar cell is pick and placed from the wafer onto an aluminum substrate (aluminum heat sink with copper silver coating) of the array and attached to the die bonding area using a conductive (thermal and electrical?) adhesive and cured in an oven. The solar cell is then wire bonded to adjacent bond pads on the same substrate. One bypass diode is assembled onto every fifth substrate in a similar fashion. In earlier generations of the technology, a bypass diode was integrated on every III-V solar cell.

Solar cell assembly used very standard semiconductor equipment and processes promising reliability and high uptime when run 24/7. Each line can process around 10000 cells per hour and together the two lines can process upwards of 500000 (half a million) cells per day. Two additional lines will need to be installed for the facility to reach nameplate capacity and process one million cells per day.

Soitec employed a copy exact philosophy in replicating this and all the production lines and processes implemented in San Diego from the 70 MWp Freiburg production site.

Next, the substrate arrays are separated into individual substrates and flash tested.

Moving on to the bottom plate line, the bottom plate glass is washed, dried, and then 200 substrates are placed into preformed depressions in the glass. The substrates are glued to the glass as placed and flashed with UV (ultraviolet) light from underneath to cure. Alignment of the substrate cell with the bottom glass plate is critical for subsequent assembly with the silicone-on-glass (SOG) Fresnel lens top plate glass and frame.

Once the 200 substrates, arranged as a ten (10) by twenty (20) matrix, are glued to the bottom plate, the cell substrates are series wirebonded with provisions for module interconnect in the master CX-M500 CPV module (datasheet).

At the end of the line, each assembled bottom plate is flash tested, subject to 100% automated visual inspection, and binned by a rather large robotic arm into cassettes for transport to the module assembly area.

The factory tour on the module assembly side was not quite continuous. To start, bottom plates were glue sealed to metal frames followed by the silicone-on-glass (SOG) Fresnel lens top plate glass. I do not recall seeing the process used by the Reflexite Soitec Optical Technology joint venture to fabricate the SOG lens top plate glass although a large area for lens curing was observed at the end of the tour.

At the other end of the line, the CX-M500 CPV module frame was welded in a semi-automated process. In the only manual steps observed at the factory, the precut aluminum beams were loaded into a frame jig for subsequent automated alignment and conveyance into a factory floor welding enclosure. Once welding is completed, the module frame exits the enclosure, is manually removed, visually inspected, plasma cleaned, and a coating is applied.

Again, I don’t recall seeing a complete master CX-M500 CPV module assembled from twelve (12) individual modules. However, Soitec mentioned the CX-M500 series and parallel interconnect could be optimized to change the current-voltage characteristics, and our group was shown bent aluminum “brackets” being made for module interconnect.

From Soitec San Diego

Last, the CX-M500 CPV modules are packed ten (10) modules per pallet for shipment to installation sites. A few CPV module pallets were parked outside the back of the facility, perhaps to make room for the indoor celebration.

CPV System CX-S530 at UCSD
As discussions wound up after the tour, I was reminded Soitec had deployed a 5th generation
CPV System CX-S530 28.1 kWp (kiloWatt-peak) demo tracker at UCSD (University California, San Diego) around October 2011. It does not take much CPV bait for certain Photovoltaic Bloggers. I decided to route my return to the San Diego Airport via UCSD. With a quick stop to look up the location of the first Concentrix UCSD installation, I headed to the East Campus and almost gave up until I saw the tops of the unmistakable trackers.

From Soitec San Diego

I had not seen a Soitec Concentrix system since Intersolar 2007 when I walked over to the Concentrix Solar Concentrator Proving Ground at the Solar Info Center in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany. I thought the CX-S530 System was quite breathtaking with the near transparent modules on the sunny, 850 DNI (Direct Normal Irradiance) day. Does that make me sound like a CPV geek?

From Soitec San Diego

Beyond the usual suspects, Soitec invited the gamut of suppliers, potential suppliers, and competitors from across the CPV ecosystem to the grand opening celebration.

From Soitec San Diego

The burden now falls on Soitec to prove CPV can be manufactured cost competitively in the United States using state of the art automation and generate competitive kiloWatt-hours when deployed in high DNI regions on an LCOE (Levelized Cost of Energy) basis.

From Soitec San Diego

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4 comments

  1. admin says:

    Here is the full ESTCP entry for the Fort Irwin project.

    Soitec 1MW Concentrated Photovoltaic (CPV) Demonstration Project for On-Site Distributed Power Generation
    EW-201301
    http://bit.ly/Z88Rhg

  2. Paul Bostwick says:

    ” I thought the CX-S530 System was quite breathtaking with the near transparent modules on the sunny, 850 DNI (Direct Normal Irradiance) day. Does that make me sound like a CPV geek?”

    um yes. but in a good way.

    I just discovered your blog. Super reporting – very informative.

  3. Alex says:

    What about the cost, how much does CX-M500 cost?

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