Friday, April 3, 2009

Georgia Tech Powers Southeast's First Solar Cell Manufacturer

Using technology developed at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Suniva Inc. has become the first solar cell manufacturer in the Southeast. The company is making high-efficiency crystalline-silicon photovoltaic cells around the clock at a 73,000-square-foot facility in Norcross, north of Atlanta.

Moreover, Suniva expects to expand quickly. Using technology based on the research of Georgia Tech Regents’ Professor Ajeet Rohatgi, the company is presently manufacturing its ARTisun solar cells at a rate of 32 megawatts (MW) annually. Since an average U.S. home requires about 5 kilowatts of power, Suniva’s present annual output can furnish enough solar cells to supply about 6,300 homes, Rohatgi says.

Suniva plans to ramp up to an annual solar-cell output of nearly 100 MW – enough to power about 19,000 U.S. homes. The company currently employs about 70 people and expects to add more staff as it grows.

Suniva uses a patented technology it calls Star to extract maximum performance from wafers of monocrystalline silicon, a material often used for solar power generation.

A solar cell contains several layers, and every layer plays a role in the cell’s overall efficiency. Rohatgi has studied solar cells in depth for some 30 years, learning how to optimize each layer to get maximum output – at the least cost.

“We want to be right at the sweet spot,” said Rohatgi, who is both Suniva’s founder and chief technology officer. “We want cells that are highly efficient but low in cost, and that can generate power at a cost comparable to the power you buy from the electric company.”

Rohatgi’s solar-cell research has received significant funding over many years from the U.S. Department of Energy.

“Suniva is a shining example of how government support for research can lead to very real job creation,” said Robert Knotts, director of federal relations for Georgia Tech. “It’s a strong reminder of why we should invest in research.”

Suniva’s current solar-cell output falls in the 17- to 18-percent efficiency range, which Rohatgi classifies as high, especially in a lower-cost cell. But the company is continuing to improve its technology, and recently the National Renewable Energy Laboratory certified a new Suniva cell and cell structure at 20 percent efficiency, generally considered very high.

Suniva is a graduate of VentureLab, a Georgia Tech program supported by the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) to foster young companies based on commercially promising research. In early 2008, Suniva joined the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), Georgia Tech’s science and technology incubator.

Georgia Tech’s VentureLab is part of Commercialization Services, a unit of Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. Commercialization Services’ work involves identifying, evaluating and promoting Georgia Tech research discoveries that show commercial promise.

To date, Suniva has received total funding of $55.5 million from several venture capital organizations, including Menlo Park, Calif.-based New Enterprise Associates (NEA). Even more significant, Suniva now has contracts worth more than $1 billion through 2013, with more agreements expected.

Rohatgi, who runs the University Center of Excellence for Photovoltaic Research and Education in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, admits he was hesitant when VentureLab and NEA began encouraging him in 2006 to start a solar-cell company. He told them it would be better to wait until he’d achieved even higher efficiencies in a low-cost cell.

“The VentureLab people were very helpful to me as I thought through the pros and cons of starting a company,” Rohatgi said. “I wanted to wait for 20 percent efficiency, but VentureLab and NEA executives convinced me that we already possessed a unique balance of efficiency and cost.”

Rohatgi said Suniva gained another advantage early on—a first-class management team.

“With the help of NEA and VentureLab, Suniva has assembled a great management team with enormous experience in running technology manufacturing companies,” he said. “I have to admit that being able to put together such a well-established team played a big role in my decision to start the company in August 2007.”

Suniva’s chairman and CEO, John W. Baumstark, is a technology-industry veteran with wide experience that includes serving as CEO of DWL before its acquisition by IBM and as chief operating officer of TRADEX Technologies before and during its acquisition by Ariba Inc. for $5.6 billion in 2000.

The company’s vice president of manufacturing, Stephen P. Shea, ran BP Solar’s manufacturing line for many years. Daniel L. Meier, vice president of research and development, has worked for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and has run R&D for two other companies.

Other top Suniva management includes CFO James M. Modak and vice president of marketing and sales J. Bryan Ashley.

According to Baumstark, Suniva’s expansion plans have not been hampered by global credit problems.

“We've been fortunate,” Baumstark said recently. “We've picked partners well and have not had to cut back. Having versatility and orders already in place has been very good for us.”

In August, Suniva announced it had solar cell orders from Solon AG of Germany for $500 million through 2012, and some $480 million in orders through 2013 from India’s Titan Energy.

Baumstark added that Suniva executives are currently negotiating with several other companies about additional deals.

"In the next two to three years, we expect the quality-price balance of our product will put us at grid parity at a dollar per watt,” Baumstark said, meaning that power from Suniva cells would cost about as much as buying power from the electric company.

Rohatgi said he will continue to work to make Suniva an important contributor to Georgia’s manufacturing base.

“It’s a very nice feeling to bring in new technology to Atlanta and to Georgia,” he said. “Suniva is the first solar-cell manufacturing company in the Southeast, and we want very much for it to be a complete success.”

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