More and more solar technology companies are establishing themselves in the eastern German state of Saxony. The conditions in the state provide a solid basis for strong growth and the further development of their technologies. 01/2009

 

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The 6 m2 glass panels used by Saxony-based manufacturer Signet Solar GmbH to produce thin-film solar modules have travelled a long way to get here. They are made in Japan by glass specialist Pilkington. ‘Their surface is very homogenous and they have a special film for initial solar module contact,’ explains Matthias Gerhardt, Manager Business Development Europe. In order to reduce the high transport costs, these special panels will also be manufactured in Germany in the future. In the Signet Solar factory in Mochau, near Leipzig, a robot lifts the glass panels from the pallet and places them on to a conveyor belt. Here, they first pass through a cleaning machine, before a laser burns the initial structures for the future solar cells into the special film. Ultra-thin coatings of various materials are then applied to the modules in seven different chambers, before the modules are finished off by the laser again.

 

‘We make nine of these panels an hour,’ Gerhardt explains. This means that solar modules with an output totalling 20 MW can be produced over a year. Signet Solar has been working on achieving this full capacity since it brought the first production line into service in May 2008. Plans already go much further, however: Signet Solar intends to build further production lines in Mochau by 2011, allowing annual production of solar modules with a total output of 130 MW. Its US parent company, Signet Solar Inc., has plans to create even larger production capacity in India by 2012. The founders of the parent company, who started out in Silicon Valley, California in 2006, originate from India. In order to pursue the production of thin-film solar modules, they acquired rights to a licensed technology and commissioned the first turnkey factory from specialist supplier Applied Materials.

 

 

13 Saxon research institutes are engaged in solar issues

 

The fact that they decided to set up their first production site not under California's powerful sun, but in Mochau, Saxony, can be attributed to the excellent conditions that prevail for the emerging solar industry in eastern Germany. When Signet Solar was looking for a site in Europe in 2006, the authorities in Saxony offered “a perfect site” in Mochau, according to Gerhardt. Proximity to the research institutes engaged in solar issues was an added bonus. According to data from Saxony’s Economic Development Corporation, there are 13 such institutes in Saxony alone, with others located in the neighbouring states of Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia. This was an important factor in Signet Solar’s considerations, as it intends to build its own research and development centre in Mochau. In addition, a strong semiconductor industry has developed in Saxony’s capital, Dresden, around US computer processor manufacturer Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and German memory chip producer Qimonda. This industry is currently a source of highly skilled staff for the solar sector: Specialists who have lost their jobs in recent months due to the crisis at Qimonda are now switching to manufacturers of solar cells and modules in the region. Due to the deindustrialisation of eastern Germany in the 1990s, there is also considerable interest from the governments of Saxony and other regions in the east in encouraging commercial enterprises back to the area. Depending on their size, these enterprises can expect to receive generous grants. According to Mr Gerhardt, a third of Signet Solar’s investment to date of 50 million euros has been funded by the state. Under these favourable conditions, 15 manufacturers of photovoltaic products, spanning the entire length of the value added chain, have now established themselves in Saxony. With a total of 2,500 employees, they generate an annual turnover of 1.6 billion euros.

 

What’s more, the photovoltaics market in Germany has been booming for years, thanks to cost covering feed-in tariffs for solar power. As far as the construction of solar power plants is concerned, project developers have forged ahead, and plants are now reaching the capacity of medium-sized conventional power plants. The large areas of land left vacant following the withdrawal of the Soviet army at the beginning of the 1990s can be used to this end. So a solar power plant with 40 MW of installed peak capacity has been under construction since 2007 on the site of a former Soviet military airbase in Brandis near Leipzig. And a 50 MW plant is to be constructed at a former military training ground near Cottbus.

 

The solar modules made by Signet Solar are still being installed on a smaller scale: An installation firm has mounted a photovoltaic system with a capacity of 220 kW on the roof of its production facility in Mochau. Another system, with an output of 260 kW is to be installed at a nearby waste dump. Here, half the system will be equipped with thin-film solar modules made by Signet Solar and the other half with solar modules manufactured from traditional crystalline silicon. Signet Solar’s aim here is to compare the characteristics of the modules which have been manufactured using different technologies. Crystalline solar modules are known to achieve higher levels of efficiency when it comes to converting sunlight into electricity. In contrast, thin-film solar modules are cheaper to produce, need less silicon — a resource which is in short supply — and generate more electricity in poor light.

 

 

A solar plant as gift to the Vatican and takeover plans for carmaker Opel.

 

One company which is continuing to focus on the traditional production of crystalline silicon solar modules, despite the progress with thin-film solar cells, is Solar World AG. Together with its subsidiary, Deutsche Solar AG, the company has built up a strong industrial base in the city of Freiberg, Saxony. Chief Executive Frank Asbeck has successfully drawn attention to his company on many occasions through the use of clever PR campaigns. The solar plant he sent to the Vatican as a gift has been producing ‘heavenly’ electricity, with an output of 220 kW, from the roof of the papal audience hall since November 2008. With regard to the German premises of carmaker Opel, whose US parent company General Motors has got into difficulty, Asbeck publicly announced plans for a takeover bid, under which Opel would become the first “green” car company in Europe. But there was one particular obstacle that got in Asbeck’s way: ‘General Motors rejected our bid,’ he explained during a visit to Freiberg.

 

The fact that Asbeck is not only aiming high, but is also capable of achieving his goals, is illustrated in the history of the production site in Saxony. Formerly named Bayer Solar GmbH, the company started manufacturing silicon wafers — a precursor for solar cells — for the photovoltaics industry here in 1997. At that time, annual production capacity was around 1 MW. Solar World took over this production in 2000, expanding it at a rapid pace. Wafer production capacity has since reached 350 MW and plans are already in place to expand to 1 GW. Approximately half the wafers produced are processed by Deutsche Solar’s sister company, Deutsche Cell GmbH in Freiberg, into solar cells. There is now also a recycling company in Freiberg that turns used or damaged crystalline solar cells back into raw materials for manufacturing wafers.

 

Asbeck is also forging ambitious plans in the US, effectively taking the opposite route to Signet Solar. Since taking over the crystalline solar activities of Shell Solar in 2006, Solar World has larger factories for manufacturing wafers, cells and modules at its disposal in the states of California and Washington. In 2007, it also took over a semiconductor plant in Oregon and has since been expanding it to create an integrated wafer and cell factory. With production capacity of 500 MW, this is set to become the largest solar factory in the US, according to the company’s own estimates. ‘We are convinced that demand for photovoltaic modules will double in the US,’ says Asbeck. In his view, the boom in the solar industry is only just beginning. He compares it to developments in the computer processor industry: ‘We are where Intel were 15 years ago.’

 

 

Strong growth with coating systems for solar cells and modules.

 

In recent years, manufacturers of plant and production lines on which solar cells and modules are produced have grown alongside the manufacturers of cells and modules in Saxony. The plasma and ion beam specialist Roth & Rau AG, based in Hohenstein-Ernstthal near Chemnitz, was set up in 1990 as a two-man operation. Since the end of the 1990s, the company has been focusing on coating processes for the industrial production of crystalline silicon solar cells, ultimately developing the “SiNA plant”, which applies a thin antireflective layer to solar cells using a plasma process. This not only gives the silicon wafers their blue appearance, but also results in higher electricity yield. ‘As a result, efficiency increases in the order of 15 to 16%,’ explains Bernd Rau, Vice President Research & Development. Roth & Rau are now supplying not only SiNA plants to Europe, Asia and the US, but also complete production lines for crystalline solar cells. The number of employees has grown to 553. Turnover of the listed company has exploded from 9.5 million euros in 2004 to a likely 250 million euros in 2008. The company premises acquired just two years ago are no longer big enough: Another building is already being constructed behind the current assembly building.

 

No end to this growth was in sight last November. ‘In the past eleven months we have bought eight companies,’ reports Chief Financial Officer Carsten Bovenschen. ‘We have founded one company ourselves and four further firms are currently being founded or acquired.’ There is still a lot of work to be done if Roth & Rau want to tap into new markets in southern Europe, India and South Korea as planned. At the same time, they are working on new production technologies, which are needed to make solar plants cheaper and more effective. They are also gearing up to benefit from emerging thin-film technologies, having collaborated with several customers in recent years to develop pilot plants for various processes.

 

Von Ardenne Anlagen GmbH, a Dresden-based company, is gaining hands-on experience of thin-film technology. The exterior wall of its assembly building is adorned by a 300 m2 photovoltaic system which has 420 thin-film modules installed, made from the compound semiconductor copper indium diselenide. The system was manufactured by Würth Solar GmbH, using coating equipment made by Ardenne Anlagen itself. The largest PV façade plant in the city has been supplying solar-generated electricity with a peak capacity of 31.5 kW for two years. ‘We get the highest output in March and September,’ reports Chief Scientist Johannes Strümpfel. In November, when the sun is low and the weather somewhat hazy , the display only shows output of 13.5 kW. Electricity produced here fetches a cost covering price of 52 cents per kWh from the local grid operator. ‘The plant should have paid for itself within ten years,’ believes Strümpfel.

 

The façade plant reflects the core competences of the company, which primarily manufactures vacuum coating plants for solar cells and modules as well as for architectural glazing. So as to be able to satisfy the rapidly growing demand for coating plants, primarily for thin-film solar modules and architectural glazing, the company, which has produced custom plant for many years, has switched over to serial production for customers in Europe, the US and China. Since 2004, turnover has more than doubled to around 160 million euros, and Chief Executive Robin Schild anticipates that the 670 staff will generate further growth of 10% in 2009. According to Schild and Chief Financial Officer Tino Hammer, there was nothing to suggest in November that the family business would be adversely affected by the financial crisis: ‘Long-term finance is in place,’ says Hammer. ‘And profits are staying in the company to safeguard growth.’

 

However, the fact that the financial crisis will not simply pass the solar sector – which has become accustomed to success – by without leaving a single trace is illustrated by the case of Q-Cells SE, a manufacturer of solar cells based in Saxony-Anhalt. In December it revised its forecasts for the 2008 financial year downwards, as a number of customers had postponed acceptance of agreed quantities until 2009 due to weaker market demand. However, this can be interpreted as a somewhat minor blip in an otherwise booming market. Q-Cells were still expecting to be able to increase turnover on the previous year by at least 40% to 1.75 billion euros. At the same time, another indication of growth was observed in Thuringia: Bosch, the supplier of automotive components that took over ersol Solar Energy AG, a manufacturer of solar cells based in Erfurt, in the summer of 2008, announced that it would be expanding production capacities for crystalline solar cells and modules at its Arnstadt site in Thuringia together with ersol. Approximately 530 million euros is to be invested to this end by 2012, creating 1,100 new jobs. Ersol thus intends to triple its production capacity for crystalline solar cells to 630 MW.

 

 

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