A company that is quietly competing to possibly become the biggest manufacturer of thin film photovoltaics on earth is Optisolar, headquartered in Hayward, California. Optisolar already has a manufacturing plant at their Hayward headquarters, and has just signed a lease to construct a 600,000 square foot manufacturing plant in Sacramento, California. (ref. Sacramento Housing & Redevelopment Agency Press Release of March 25, 2008, “Agency Welcomes Optisolar”) According to Optisolar’s EVP Phil Rettger, “we have signed a long term lease for the facility, and construction is going on now to support manufacturing lines later this year.”
Along with developing manufacturing lines, Optisolar is developing and plans to operate solar farms, taking the unusual step of being one company performing two very distinct functions. As solar farm developers, they have been active in Ontario, with over 200 megawatts of solar farms planned, and they have recently announced a 550 megawatt solar farm to be installed on the Carissa Plains in Central California. This gigantic solar farm will consume 9.5 square miles, and according to an Optisolar press release dated April 24, 2008, “Topaz Solar Farm on Carissa Plains,” construction is targeted to begin in 2010, after completing the local approval process.
These are big numbers. If Optisolar develops a 600,000 square foot manufacturing facility and already has a backlog of 750 megawatts – and they are already manufacturing at their facility in Hayward – they are on track to become the biggest manufacturer of thin film photovoltaics in the world. And not only are they one of the few – if not the only – vertically integrated photovoltaic manufacturers in the world, they are one of the few examples of a company doing utility scale photovoltaic farms anywhere.
We reported on Optisolar once already, back in March 2008 in our post “Utility Scale Photovoltaics.” And as reported there, the largest photovoltaic installation in the world to-date is the 12-megawatt Erlasee solar park in Germany. Optisolar’s Ontario projects break the mold, and their plans for California break the mold yet again. This company is really thinking big.
In a subsequent post we hope to report on how Optisolar intends to profitably develop utility scale photovoltaic in California, where the financial incentives, while attractive, cannot match the $.42 per kilowatt-hour feed in tarif in effect in Ontario. Obviously vertical integration helps lower costs, but another factor could be the better sunlight in California. In our last post, we calculated that Optisolar’s Ontario solar farms would deliver 28 megawatts per square mile (based on the initial agreement calling for 40 megawatts on 902 acres). At 550 megawatts on 9.5 square miles, production would come up to 58 megawatts per square mile. These are very rough numbers, of course. Put another way, if Optisolar’s panels delivered 5 watts per square foot in full sun, the maximum output would be 139 megawatts per square mile, implying (at 5 watts per square foot), their planned 9.5 square mile facility would have panels occupying about 41% of the space.
Also as noted in the previous post on Optisolar, there are advantages to thin film that don’t accrue to monocrystaline photovoltaic or solar thermal solutions. Unlike monocrystaline PV, thin film requires far less polysilicon, which ought to reduce manufacturing costs significantly. And while thin film PV is not as space efficient as moncrystaline, it does perform better in indirect light which helps make up the difference. And compared to solar thermal energy, the installation, operations and maintenance costs of thin film are relatively minor – no tracking devices, no plumbing, no pressure accumulator, no turbine, and no condenser. If you are going to build a utility scale solar farm, don’t write off thin film.