Applied Materials equipping solar factory start-ups

Chip-equipment specialist is following through on plans to supply gear to solar-panel plant start-ups.
Written by Michael Kanellos, Contributor
AUSTIN, Texas--Applied Materials has said for the past year that it will build turnkey equipment for start-up solar-panel factories, and it appears that the company has begun doing just that.

TekSun PV Manufacturing is building a plant for manufacturing 120 megawatts worth of amorphous solar panels a year in Taylor, Texas, CEO Dan Vogler said at the Clean Energy Venture Summit taking place here this week. The production lines for the panels will indeed be turnkey lines provided by another company, he noted. (The 120-megawatt designation refers to the amount of power that, under optimal conditions, could be harvested from all of the panels produced by the factory in one year.)

In its literature, TekSun said that it is partnering with Applied Materials to build the plant. An Applied representative said Wednesday that the company is talking with TekSun, among others, but it has not signed a contract with TekSun yet.

Applied, however, recently raised the predicted value of solar deals that it will sign this year from $250 million to $400 million, the Applied representative said. The company is working on solar projects in Spain and Germany. Signet Solar, for instance, recently signed a contract to buy turnkey production lines from Applied that will go live in 2008, the representative said.

In 2006, Applied Materials bought Applied Films, saying that it planned to move deeper into the market for solar-panel manufacturing equipment and that it wanted to reduce the barriers to entry for newcomers.

Applied's entrance in the solar market has marked an interesting turning point.

In the 1990s, Applied Materials--the largest maker of chip-manufacturing equipment in the world--helped Taiwanese chipmakers cut the technology gap with U.S. and Japanese rivals by sharing research and production know-how. In doing the same in the solar world, the theory goes, Applied could help start-ups catch up to older or more-established companies.

Meanwhile, Vogler highlighted the similarities between making TekSun solar panels and making LCD TVs. The company's panels will consist of a single sheet of glass measuring 2.2 meters by 2.6 meters. That's the same size as the sheets of glass that LCD makers use to make TVs. (Applied makes a lot of equipment for LCD TV manufacturing.)

TekSun plans to start producing panels in the first quarter of 2009. The panels will be made from amorphous, rather than crystalline, silicon. Amorphous panels do not convert as much sunlight into electricity as crystalline panels, but they can be cheaper to make.

Amorphous panels also are transparent. "They looked like smoked glass," Vogler said.

TekSun wants to sell its panels to utilities, which in turn will build solar utility plants. The company is participating in Texas Solar One, a 100-megawatt power plant, and is negotiating deals to provide panels to two other solar power plants in Texas.

The company will sell its solar panels in 5-megawatt modules. A module consists of 12,000 of the 2.2x2.6-meter panels. TekSun will provide customers with a 25-year warranty.

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