When exploring the expanding field of U.S. crystalline silicon solar panel manufacturers, Merlin Solar is often overlooked. Even though the innovative Silicon Valley company has over 50 worldwide patents and offers UL-certified products — including hurricane resistant ground-mount panels, adhesive Class A fire-rated rooftop panels and flexible panels for metal roofs — the ruggedness of these panels, along with their light weight and ease of installation, has lent Merlin to first focus on challenging and non-traditional solar applications like the transportation, portable and military markets. After being acquired by Filipino conglomerate Ayala Corporation last year, Merlin Solar now has the scale to bring its IP-protected grid interconnection technology of silicon cells to traditional solar markets.
Instead of using traditional busbars to make electrical connection points on solar cells, Merlin Solar uses a proprietary grid of interconnects. The grid lends stability to the brittle silicon cells and eliminates failures associated with busbar soldering points. The grid’s unique design enables Merlin to eliminate thermomechanical stresses that are endemic to crystalline solar technology — allowing for flexible panels when encased in polymers and lightweight, frameless panels when using thin glass. Founder and CTO Venkatesan Murali, Ph.D., said that Merlin’s use of conventional crystalline silicon solar cells in rugged, flexible and lightweight panels has piqued the interest of solar installers looking for alternatives to traditional, framed modules and problematic flexible thin-film.
“We have chosen to attack the residential and commercial rooftop markets now, not because we didn’t have a product previously. By focusing initially on other, technically more challenging markets, we have been able to refine our product’s performance, reliability and aesthetics and now have the scale to enter these traditional markets and become a major player,” Murali said. “Our modules are getting a lot of interest from many installers looking for alternatives to the traditional glass, aluminum rail type of product.”
Merlin Solar’s FX line of flexible modules and its GX glass-based modules are adhesive and don’t require a frame or mounting equipment. The company suggests panel adhesion directly to the roof’s underlayment with roofing shingles framing the modules. Flexible thin-film panels are Merlin’s main competition in the niche transportation market, but roofs that can’t support the weight or mounting of traditional panels and want silicon’s higher performance are a great market for Merlin’s rooftop offerings.
Merlin Solar is not the first crystalline silicon panel manufacturer to get rid of BOS materials and produce a non-penetrating, adhesive module. Lumeta Solar has a 26.5-lb, frameless 60-cell monocrystalline module encased entirely in polymers that is adhered on top of shingles or a commercial roofing system. On a smaller scale, Merlin Solar’s GX36 module features 36 grid-covered cells with a traditional tempered glass front and backsheet, weighing 19.5 lbs.
While similar concepts, Merlin Solar believes its flex-tolerant form factor and grid-connection technology sets it apart. Murali said the company’s R&D department is constantly pushing for increased power and performance.
“We of course want to get more performance, and since we are cell-architecture-agnostic, we will continue to offer best-of-breed efficiency panels,” he said. “Our grid technology allows us to minimize series resistance enabling us to offer the highest fill factor panels.”
Merlin Solar started in Murali’s garage in December 2012. As veterans of technology companies, Murali and his partners wanted to disrupt solar manufacturing.
“We came up with a process that stood interconnection technology on its end,” Murali said. “We wanted to reduce silver, but by the time we finished the development, we came up with something that addressed the major problems with silicon: cell cracking and interconnection failures. We changed from thinking of connecting solar cells with wires and busbars, replacing it with an interconnect that adapted to the cell characteristics.”
Merlin’s grids, which are manufactured in a facility in Thailand, allow more than 2,000 contact points with the cell, moving current more efficiently and boosting generation in low light and scattered light conditions. The company has panel manufacturing factories in California and the Philippines. The company also has a contract with manufacturing partner Waaree Energies in India, which has a manufacturing capacity of 1.5 GW a year. Merlin Solar is focusing on the U.S. market but also has a major presence in Southeast Asia and Europe.
Murali said the startup company is here to stay.
“We’re one of the only companies that have crossed the chasm of R&D to manufacturing. We were not looking for transactional or immediate sales. We take the long view and instead focused on creating design wins with strategic partners,” he said.
With parent company Ayala’s financial support and patent-protected grid technology, Merlin Solar plans to take a big step into traditional solar markets this year.
“There are tons of startup companies in solar. Many companies are trying to have a breakthrough moment,” Murali said. “I think this is a year that we’re going to break through.”