Small fab, new process — Solar Frontier's expansion

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Today’s announcement from Solar Frontier that it is building a new factory in Japan’s Tohoku region to house a 150 MW module line, shows the firm’s confidence in the current PV market. It also reveals a new approach to manufacturing capacity build outs.

Japanese thin film producer Solar Frontier will employ a new approach to its CIS thin film technology in its new Tohoku 150 MW fab. The facility will produce 15% efficient modules.

"It is the next step in our technology development," said Solar Frontier’s Brooks Herring, the director of International Business for the firm. "We’re building this plant in Tohoku because we are ready to deploy a new level of technology that will produce panels with higher efficiencies and at lower cost."

Herring to pv magazine that while the company is continuing in use its CIS thin film technology — Solar Frontier’s semiconductor stack does include gallium, making it CIGS — it has tweaked certain processes that will be employed in the new 150 MW line. "We’ve shortened cycle times so our process efficiency is better," Herring added.

Solar Frontier would not reveal its production costs per watt, altough Herring said that the firm wouldn’t be building the new plant if it was not cost competitive. "We’ve said previously that we’re among the best in class amongst cost performance now, so that (new processes) will take production costs even lower."

Location and support

The new Solar Frontier manufacturing facility will be located in the Tohoku prefecture that was badly affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Solar Frontier hopes to receive some government funding for the facility that is being put in place to help revitalise the region. Herring said the process for gaining that funding is still underway.

Much of the production for the new fab, which is forecast to be complete in 2015, will be for the Tohoku region itself. This year, over 90% of Solar Frontier’s 900 MW of capacity was sold into the Japanese market.

The new fab is located in the vicinity of a Toyota manufacturing facility in an area that was not badly affected by the 2011 natural disasters. The Toyota factory itself was only out of operation for one month after the earthquake and tsunami, Herring added.

The 150 MW nameplate capacity has been chosen because that is the optimal commercial size of one of the new production lines, Solar Frontier reports. Herring would not be drawn on what international markets were being investigated for similar sized manufacturing facilities. "This is a model plant — it’s a stepping stone to global expansion with our new technology and 150 MW represents the size of the line in a multi-line type of factory, when we expand overseas."

Solar Frontier, which is set to return a profit to its parent company Showa Shell Sekiyu, has been developing its CIS technology for 20 years.