IN DEPTH: Solar Frontier's robots
On top of a hill ringed by low mountains, at the end of a maze of rice paddies, lies a factory so large that the Solar Frontier logo on the side is visible from miles away.
Yet despite being the size of 22 soccer pitches, with an immense production capacity of 900MW, only 150 employees are on duty at any given time. The hard work is done by about 1,000 robotic machines whirring away in a surreal cacophony of hums, bleeps, bells and buzzers.
“I see seldom see people anywhere, just at break times,” says factory manager Kazuki Kakegawa as he shows Recharge around. Conveyor belts overhead whizz unfinished modules on to the next stage of production, while nearby an astonishing robotic arm peels protective sheets off glass substrates in spasmodic movements that belie its extreme precision.
Solar Frontier’s warehouse is perhaps even more extraordinary, with motorised trolleys shuffling pallets of completed modules to automated cranes that whisk them into the air and away to one of 6,000 storage spaces somewhere out of sight in the cavernous building.
“It’s like something from a Pixar movie,” Kakegawa smiles, “without the lights and music.”
This robot army — designed by Solar Frontier — operates around the clock, 365 days a year, watched over by scores of technicians and operators.
“Machine specifications can drift or shift, so we monitor that through inspections,” explains Kakegawa. “Machines can only detect specific things, but people can detect abnormalities, smells and irregularities. So visual inspections are very important... all these machines are backed by people, my staff.”
One employee was checking the backs of modules — taking measurements and spinning panels on a turntable to examine each corner with a torch — with such precision and efficiency that he almost resembled a robot himself.
The plant, in Kunitomi, Miyazaki prefecture, is one of the key reasons behind Solar Frontier’s success, critically providing scale when it was needed, senior vice-president Atsuhiko Hirano tells Recharge at the company’s Tokyo headquarters. “It is not everything, but... the cost-competitiveness from that factory has helped us in getting into the Japanese market,” he says.
Two years ago, before the introduction of Japan’s feed-in tariff, the manufacturer exported 70% of its copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) thin-film modules. Today, the country’s blisteringly hot solar market accounts for 90% of its 900MW-plus of annual shipments.
The company is still supplying panels around the world, including to the US, Europe, South Africa, the Middle East and India. It has sales offices in Germany, California and Saudi Arabia, and is planning to build a factory overseas when the time is right.
As a first step towards this, Solar Frontier unveiled plans in December to open its fourth factory in northern Japan’s Tōhoku region — far from the company’s three existing plants on the southern island of Kyushu.
“We’re focusing on making [the fourth factory] successful so we can take that step overseas... and once we ensure that it’s delivering what we firmly believe it can deliver, that’s when we’ll get much more serious about expanding overseas,” says Solar Frontier vice-president Brooks Herring.
The media has long speculated that the company will build a factory in Saudi Arabia, where it supplied modules for a 10.5MW array for Saudi Aramco, which part-owns Solar Frontier. But the location of the first foreign plant remains undecided. Hirano tells Recharge that the company is looking for “sustainable” markets — those that are capable of achieving grid parity and are not susceptible to policy U-turns.
“Our plan is to have factories closer to those key markets where sustainability could be expected,” he explains. “And rather than having one single giant plant supplying demand across the globe, our idea is to have more dispersed plants closer to those key markets.”
The company will continue to take a measured approach to international opportunities, shipping limited volumes of panels overseas for now, due to the sheer strength of demand in Japan. “We’ll be selective in choosing the right strategic partners or customers that can give us a good lead to the future,” says Hirano.
Given the fickle nature of the global PV business, it’s probably better to err on the side of caution, says Herring. “If people were paid for the accuracy of their forecasts, most of them would be relatively broke, because the highs have been higher and the lows have been lower,” he explains.
Even though it often seems as though Solar Frontier burst onto the solar scene virtually overnight, its rise has been relatively cautious.
Its parent company, Showa Shell Sekiyu — Japan’s third-largest oil refiner — began R&D on crystalline-silicon solar cells in 1978, before switching to amorphous silicon in 1986. By the early 1990s, it had shifted focus to CIGS.
“Everyone thought we were crazy,” says Kakegawa, “but we were very serious.”
While CIGS is still not cost-competitive with polysilicon, it has more potential for improvement in terms of conversion efficiency, and has an advantage in hotter parts of the world, due to its lower-temperature coefficient. The company has been working hard to lower its costs even further at its Atsugi Research Centre in Kanagawa prefecture near Tokyo.
Showa Shell Solar, as it was then, began production at its 20MW factory in 2007, and opened a second 60 MW plant, also in Miyazaki prefecture, two years later. In 2011, after changing its name to Solar Frontier, the company opened its 900MW Kunitomi facility, the world’s largest CIGS plant. Its fourth factory, 1,300km away, is set to open by March 2015.
As Herring notes: “It’s been a pretty steady stream of capacity increases.”
Another arena for steady expansion is in broadening its downstream expertise — in both project development and EPC.
Solar Frontier has already been working in separate partnerships with industrial engineer Chiyoda, state-owned Development Bank of Japan and German system integrator Belectric.
Projects it recently co-developed include an 11.6MW system at Kansai International Airport near Osaka, which is due to come on line in the coming months.
“We’re providing total solutions to investors, together with EPC,” Hirano says. “We also provide O&M services... and I think that all adds up to be competitive in terms of value versus cost.
“So we’re able to provide the best solution to the investor as a system. And I think this is the approach we want to take.”
With support from Showa Shell Sekiyu — co-owned by Saudi Aramco (15%) and Royal Dutch Shell (35%) — it seems that Solar Frontier will be able to achieve whatever it wants — in its own way, and in its own time.