This fall, a brand new solar company announced a major addition to U.S. manufacturing with its gigawatt-production plans. Violet Power is setting up in a 600,000-sq.-ft facility across the street from REC Silicon in Moses Lake, Washington, and will have 500 MW of crystalline silicon solar cell manufacturing capacity by Q2 2021 with another 500 MW of full panel production by the end of next year. The plan is to eventually scale to 5 GW of production and 1,000 manufacturing employees.
The announcement gives a boost to domestic solar cell production — the United States currently has none after Panasonic left the Buffalo, New York, facility it shared with Tesla earlier this year. And Violet Power’s promise of solar cell manufacturing allowed for the reopening of the mothballed REC Silicon plant and a push for a low-carbon solar supply chain across the country.
Violet Power has many solar-educated executives steering the ship, including founder Desari Strader (previously with SolarWorld) and CEO Charlie Gay. Gay has been working in solar manufacturing for 45 years and was one of the first employees at ARCO Solar, which opened the first large-scale commercial manufacturing factory in 1980. Most recently, Gay was director of the Solar Energy Technology Office with the U.S. Department of Energy. We spoke with Gay earlier this month to get all the details on the new solar cell and panel manufacturing outfit in the United States.
Violet Power solar panels will be highly durable with a production warranty of 50 years
Gay said he wants to take advantage of the knowledge the industry gained in making solar panels in the 1980s and translate that to the longest and best performing modules on the market.
“At ARCO Solar, we carried out research on manufacturing processes and materials, and included in that was the development of encapsulation polymers that are important to the longevity of a module,” he said.
Together with DuPont, ARCO formulated modified versions of a thermoplastic called polyvinyl butyral (PVB). ARCO narrowed down the encapsulate formula to three recipes and made modules using each. The panels were installed in Europe in 1982 and just recently decommissioned, all the while monitored and tested by independent research labs in Italy and Switzerland. One of the encapsulate recipes led to the panels retaining 95% of the power they had 35 years earlier when they were initially installed.
Violet Power will use that durable and reliable PVB encapsulant on its panels made in the 2020s.
“The encapsulation is generally the weakest link in long-term durability,” Gay said. “Having a set of experiences with blending up a proprietary mix of stabilizers and UV absorbers into advanced polymers that have evolved over the course of the past 40 years gives us confidence about being able to make a module that’s built to last.”
The panels will also use interdigitated back contact (IBC) technology licensed from ISC Konstanz in Germany. The Zebra-branded IBC cell architecture will be paired with an aluminum flex circuit developed by SunFlex Solar out of Arizona.
“The printed circuit board is a large sheet of foil that is bonded to the solar cell which allows for about 85% of the metal on the solar cell to be eliminated. Typically those metal layers are expensive silver-based materials,” Gay said. “So we can take a lot of the cost out of the back-contact solar cell by substituting aluminum foil, which [also allows] the module to operate at a lower temperature.
“The lower temperature will mean greater energy delivery, and it’ll substantially extend the time of use in the field before folks begin to think about decommissioning or recycling,” he continued.
Execs chose Washington for its manufacturing base to keep a low carbon footprint
With a growing movement for a decarbonized solar supply chain in the United States, Violet Power chose the Pacific Northwest as its production headquarters to make a statement. The company’s facility in Moses Lake, Washington, gets its electricity from hydropower produced at the Grand Coulee Dam and delivered through the Bonneville Power Administration transmission system. Violet Power will first source its silicon wafers from NorSun, a manufacturer in Norway that also uses hydropower for electricity. Later receiving materials from the restarted ingot and wafer production at REC Silicon next door, Violet Power’s silicon solar cells will be sustainable and responsibly produced.
“We wanted to have a low carbon footprint associated with our manufacturing and be in proximity to a potential upstream supply of silicon and have the ability to also link in with glass production that’s based in the State of Washington,” Gay said.
Violet Power’s current facility can accommodate 1 GW of cell and module production. The company also has access to 162 acres of land around the building that could allow for an additional 4 GW of expansion.
Residential customers are going to love Violet Power solar panels
While the immediate focus is starting solar cell production by Q2 2021 — for which Gay said Violet Power already has several U.S. customers ready for the high-efficiency back-contact cells — the company will be validating the manufacturability of the SunFlex solar circuit to pump out modules within a year. With no front-busbars and their lower operating temperature, Violet Power panels will be especially ideal for residential applications.
“Rooftop systems tend to operate hotter than any other application because there’s very little space between the back of the module and the roof, so heat gets trapped behind the module,” Gay said. “By making it possible for heat to escape and to reduce the temperature of the module, we’ll be able to take advantage of the high efficiency of an IBC cell with retaining that high efficiency and energy delivery because of the lower operating temperature.”