Solar Frontier to add 150 MW of capacity in new fab

After a long period in which manufacturing capacity expansions were thin on the ground, another manufacturer has announced it is adding new module lines.

Solar Frontier will construct a 150 MW fab in the Tohoku region in Japan. Tohoku comprises six prefectures, including Fukushima, and was badly damaged by the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. Previous to the 2011 natural disasters and the ongoing saga at the Fukushimi Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the Tohoku region had been in decline.

Solar Frontier will draw on a number of regional and national government funding programs to instruct the manufacturing facility. The company will invest JPY13 billion (US$125 million) in the fab.

Hiroto Tamai, president and representative director at Solar Frontier, said that the new facility would further establish the company as a strong global player.

"By constructing the Tohoku Plant, Solar Frontier will help to revitalize the Tohoku economy through collaboration with local industries and the creation of new jobs."

The 150 MW fab adds to the approximate 1 GW of manufacturing capacity that Solar Frontier currently operates. For more than six months, the company has been reporting that it is operating at "full blast." It has also recently reopened older, relatively small fabs to keep up with demand.

The new Solar Frontier fab is being tentatively referred to as the Tohoku Plant. The company’s fourth facility will still be dwarfed by the 900 MW Kunitomi Plant, which was completed in 2011.

That Solar Frontier has chosen to build a relatively small new fab may point to an emerging manufacturing strategy for PV module producers. In its release announcing the Tohoku Plant, Solar Frontier writes: "The Tohoku Plant will also serve as a blueprint for future manufacturing facilities outside of Japan, in line with worldwide demand growth and Solar Frontier’s mid-term plans to build future plants outside of Japan."

Solar Frontier has been active in the Middle East for a number of years and could potentially take steps to construct local, and relatively small, manufacturing facilities there similar to the Tohoku Plant. Proponents of thin film technology, including CIGS — which Solar Frontier refers to as CIS — advocate as one of its advantages the fact that it does not require the supply chain of c-Si producers and therefore could be better suited to "distributed manufacturing," with smaller fabs closer to market.

Solar Frontier says that the modules produced at the Tohoku Plant will largely supply the adjacent region. The Tohoku Plant is scheduled to be completed by March 2015.