Stion: Bankruptcy not in the plans

Company: Thin-film technology will create solar success; plant ribbon cutting set for Sept. 16

As the photovoltaics industry took a hit with the bankruptcy of Evergreen Solar, Stion announced a Sept. 16 ribbon cutting for its Hattiesburg plant.

While some industry experts speculate more solar companies may also fail or move production to China, Stion and other manufacturers feel secure with thin-film technology.

Evergreen used solar wafer technology, which was favored by investors in 2007, because their efficient process used much less of the costly raw material polysilicon. Since that time, silicon prices have fallen significantly, making that advantage less meaningful.

While risk-taking and failure are part of the innovation process, Evergreen’s Aug. 15 bankruptcy is interesting because the company received a significant amount of support from Massachusetts taxpayers — around $58 million in both subsidies and tax breaks — for the plant that opened in 2008. The Wall Street Journal in particular has criticized the “government-as-investor role” in renewable energy companies such as Evergreen.

Similarly, the Mississippi Legislature has assumed a venture capital role in giving Stion a $75-million low-interest loan administered through the Mississippi Development Authority. Like Massachusetts residents, Mississippians will be on the hook for the loan if Stion should fail.

Stion’s technology

While about 80 percent of the solar market manufactures crystalline silicon panels, Stion is using thin-film technology, which has a comparable efficiency but can be made at a lower cost. In the solar industry “efficiency” refers to the percentage of light energy that can be converted to electric power.

While making a conventional crystalline silicon panel generally requires 30 or more different process steps, Stion and others who use monolithic integration can make a panel in 10-15 steps, said Frank Yang, Stion’s director of business development.

“Monolithic integration” refers to producing a fully integrated circuit on glass instead of assembling individual cells. Other manufacturers using similar thin-film technology include First Solar (the only thin-film manufacturer producing over 100 MW today), Solar Frontier, GE, Avancis, Solibro and Wurth Solar.

“There are two major metrics that matter in solar manufacturing: cost and efficiency. Stion is striving for the optimal combination of those two,” Yang said.

One reason the inherent cost structure for thin-film production is lower is because significantly less raw material is used in producing the panels. Additionally, Stion is basing its manufacturing on standardized production tools — such as those used for other high-volume applications like glass coating — as opposed to using more expensive, custom-made equipment.

“Developing custom production equipment is an expensive, time-consuming exercise, which most small companies are not well-resourced to engage in,” Yang said. “Our focus has been on optimizing materials, device and process designs and then scaling the approach using commercially available equipment.”

Stion says its Hattiesburg plant will represent a total of $500 million in investment and create 1,000 jobs. The company has hired more than 100 full-time workers thus far for its first phase of development and will produce panels later this year.

Stion’s San Jose, Calif., pilot plant has already produced panels.

The company has said 80 percent of Stion’s positions can be filled by high school graduates and will pay $14 to $20 an hour. Engineering salaries will be around $75,000 annually.

Stion is backed by venture capital investors including Khosla Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Braemar Energy Ventures and General Catalyst Partners.

See related story: “Solar panels made in state. Will they be used in state?”

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