Solar Frontier thinks big as Kunitomi fires on all cylinders

With $1.2bn invested in its 900MW fully auto­mated factory in ­Japan, Solar Frontier is ramping up commercialisation of its thin-film PV panels in earnest.

The Kunitomi plant, which opened in April, began exporting 150-watt (W) copper-­indium-selenium­ (CIS) modules last month.

Solar Frontier claims the modules have a 12.2% effici­ency — higher than First Solar’s ­cadmium- telluride­ panels — and the company plans to improve that.

In testing, it set a CIS record with a 17.2%-efficient 30sq-cm sub-module, and it says it will roll those ­pro­cess improvements into its production lines en route to building a 14%-efficient­ 170W module in 2014.

Chief operating officer Gregory Ashley says the company is targeting the large commercial rooftop and utility markets in North America, and will leverage parent company Showa Shell Sekiyu KK’s strong networks in heavy industry to ­develop sales.

Solar Frontier has no plans to become a project developer, as many large solar manufacturers have. Ashley says it does not want to be in “the position of competing with our customers”.

He tells Recharge that the company has committed about one third of its production to the Americas. However, it is not ­setting up facilities in the hot ­solar market of Ontario.

Parts of the crystalline-silicon (c-Si) manufacturing process, such as module assembly, can easily be moved to the Canadian province to satisfy its local-content­ require­ment, but Solar Frontier would need to see a larger market to justify setting up a fully-integrated manufacturing facility there.

Ashley says thin-film is not subject to dramatic cost swings for components such as silicon and silver, allowing Solar Frontier to make commitments on pricing and product availability. He sees this as an important advantage over c-Si competitors, which are watching prices plunge as global supplies exceed demand.

“Costs are going down, so ­profit margins are going down, but we have a competitive cost structure. We can compete in the market worldwide,” he says.

Solar Frontier has ambitious growth and market-share targets, and Ashley suggests that instead of being concerned about oversupply, the industry should be prepared for another big expansion.

“There are growth plans for the company in manufacturing globally,” he says.

All production lines at Kunitomi are open and it is on track to reach its targeted annual capacity of 900MW as average module output continues to increase, says Solar Frontier.

The plant, located in the prefecture of Miyazaki, is Japan's largest solar-module production facility, and the largest factory in the world that produces CIS systems.

With its existing plants, Solar Frontier now has a total annual production capacity of around 1GW.

The company says Munich Re has provided warranty insurance for its modules worldwide, the first time the German group has done so for a Japanese solar-panel manufacturer.