Our strategy is focused on being close to the market. For the last 25 years the photovoltaic sector has operated mainly in a horizontal fashion. Now the time for vertical integration has come, and we are well positioned for this change. With this in mind, the recent joint venture Espe-SunParc will allow Silfab to be completely involved in every segment of the downstream market, including Solar Farms.

The Zebra Breakthrough

Franco Traverso | Silfab SpA

1. Silfab recently opened a manufacturing plant in Ontario: What is your current capacity and workforce?

I am very proud of what we have accomplished so far in Ontario. In June 2010, Silfab launced a new ambitious project: building a highly automated production site in Ontario (Canada). The planned production capacity we initially thought of was 120 MW, to be reached in two stages: 60 MW to be completed by the second quarter of 2011, and the remaining 60 MW to be added by the end of 2012. Later, we brought our targets to 90 and 180 MW, as demand in Ontario is growing.
During the second half of 2010, Silfab identified Mississauga as its ideal location and set up Silfab Ontario Inc., secured financial support from the Province of Ontario, and built a manufacturing plant which currently employs 55 people and is ramping up fast to a production capacity of 90 MW. We started production in less than a year, on April 2011. We also signed preliminary contracts for over 100 MW at the end of 2010, and then signed important contracts with emerging top local players such as Agris Solar Cooperative and Alderville First Nation.
Exactly 30 years ago, I inaugurated in Italy a company that marked the start of the photovoltaic industry in my country and I now find myself doing the same in Canada. I could have no greater satisfaction than seeing that the fruits of the know-how acquired over time will now help the development of solar energy in the Province of Ontario.

2. Why did you choose Ontario for this plant?

After the Green Energy Act of 2009, Ontario has become a new booming market for renewables, including the photovoltaic sector where Silfab operates as a vertically integrated provider. It is now one of the fastest growing markets in North America.
The Feed-In-Tariff system established by the Ontario Power Authority has been   very successful, and, together with other factors, helped us make this decision. I would mention excellent insolation, a strong financial system, the outstanding workforce and its engineering skills, and the proximity to the US market.

3. What are you plans in the near future, for capacity and workforce?

Assuming that Ontario will preserve the FIT program, by the end of 2012, production capacity in Mississauga will reach 180 MW and we will have almost 200 employees there. However, things are moving fast in the energy sector and we might be able to even further expand our operations soon afterwards. As for any other jurisdiction, clear and consistent policies are essential to to an investment and to the retention and creation of jobs.

4. What are some of the differences you found in running a manufacturing plant in Ontario, as compared to Italy ?

My personal experience with manufacturing plants in the photovoltaic sector already included other countries besides Italy. In Canada I found not just a welcoming environment and ample support from the local, provincial and federal governments, but also superb collaborators and technicians very capable of actively contributing to the success of this entrepreneurial initiative.
Obviously in Ontario, we had to recruit people coming from different industries, such as the electronic, automotive, or aerospace industries. The need for a specific training, however, has been met quite easily. Employees did not object to the idea of spending even extended periods of time to train at our operations in Europe. It was also easy to bring skilled managers to Ontario. In Ontario we found a remarkable background in terms of quality and safety controls, and an excellent capability in adopting, and even improving, policies and procedures.

5. What are Silfab's top products currently on the market, and what new products can we expect to see soon ?

Our top products currently on the market are the SLA255M and SLG 300M, 60 and 72 high efficiency monocrystalline solar cell modules. Our polycristalline top products are the SLA 245P (60 cells) and the SLG 290P (72 cells). A particularly interesting product series is Silux (235M, 240M and 245M), designed especially for greenhouses. It combines high electrical power output with a high transparency, thanks to the increased spacing between cells and to the transparent backsheet.
Our modules are a result of the experience of the Silfab technical team, specialized in the entire photovoltaic value chain, with modules produced and operating for over 30 years. Many field experiences attest a typical expected lifetime of Silfab modules of over 40 years. Looking at the near future, we recently announced a new cell, called “Zebra”, that we are convinced may prove to be an important step on the path towards the Grid-Parity.

6. About your recently announced “Zebra” IBC cell: what have you already achieved, and what do you forecast for its future development ?

Zebra is a new interdigitated back-contact solar cell with actual 19+% energy conversion efficiency and potential exceeding 22%, and that uses a low-cost industrial process. The Zebra cell concept is based on large area (156 mm x 156 mm) n-type monocrystalline (Cz) silicon wafers and is a back-contact, back-junction cell without any metallization on the sunny side. In our first trials on large wafers (156 mm x 156 mm) we have already achieved a conversion efficiency of 19+ %. This means that, while the efficiency of today’s industrial mainstream monocrystalline cell technology will soon saturate at around 19-20%, Silfab’s innovative Zebra technology starts at 19%, and can reach efficiencies of over 22% while significantly reducing the production costs per Watt peak.
We are using industrial equipment on a laboratory scale at ISC Konstanz. And let me say that I am very optimistic about the future potential of this partnership. We brought together decades of industrial experience of the Silfab team and the outstanding scientific expertise of the widely acknowledged international research institute, ISC Konstanz.
The efficiency potential of this cell concept is clearly over 22% and may be significantly higher than that, since we are working with n-type silicon. Not less important is that we found a new combination of process steps that are already of common use in the industry (such as screen printing, or tube diffusions). It is a combination that is both intelligent and simple. As a consequence, Zebra cells will have a lower production cost per Wp than any of today’s standard monocrystalline cells. Our next step will be to set up a pilot-line for the production of Zebra cells, in order to develop the technology and bring it to the market.
Furthemore, in order to fully exploit the potential of Zebra cells, the new modules we are working on will have around 25% more power output than standard modules of the same size.

7. How are you involved in the research of new modules technology?  

We are working with raw material suppliers, including cell manufacturers, to implement improvements to our module design. This will enable us to reduce costs and increase the modules' lifetime, as well as improving energy production. We are developing a cost effective module assembly process for our Zebra cells, specifically targeting increased energy yield and extending the lifetime.
Specifically, we have identified a new encapsulant material, silicone, which substitutes EVA (ethyl-vinil-acetate). This allows a 10-15% increase in solar insolation captured by the Zebra cell, and significantly reduces the expected annual degradation (from 0.8% to only 0.1-0.15%). This means that the module is more efficient and extends its lifecycle. In fact, the module starts, as I said, with a power output which is 23% higher and will still operate at 95% of its nominal power after 25 years, with an overall gain of 33% at that point. After 30 years, the overall gain is at 35%, and after 41 years the residual power remains just below 95%, with an overall gain of 40%. This is all possible using the present day manufacturing processes.

8. Do you expect to see any major breakthroughs in PV technology in the near future?

We think that in the short and mid-term crystalline silicon technology will continue to dominate the market. From this perspective, we expect to see more high-efficiency technology and lowering costs. We are convinced that Zebra technology represents the leading edge of this trend. The final breakthrough will come from the time that these efforts enable the photovoltaic systems to reach the Grid-Parity. As I said, we are convinced that Zebra may prove to be an important step. Possibly the final step.
With the Zebra technology, today’s industry standard cells and modules manufacturing lines can be used to produce super high efficiency cells and modules at a significantly reduced cost per Watt. As a consequence of this newly developed know-how, Silfab will play the role of technology provider to other cells and modules manufacturing companies willing to convert their traditional lines, thus strongly contributing to their competitiveness and profitability. 

9. Can you tell us more about your business development fields and strategies?

Our strategy is focused on being close to the market. For the last 25 years the photovoltaic sector has operated mainly in a horizontal fashion. Now the time for vertical integration has come, and we are well positioned for this change. With this in mind, the recent joint venture Espe-SunParc will allow Silfab to be completely involved in every segment of the downstream market, including Solar Farms. We have consolidated module production with EPC activities and are busy at work in many parts of the world where good markets for Solar Farms already exist, or will soon develop.

10. What are your thoughts about the global future of PV?

Without mass markets, research and technology efforts have been slow in the past. Now, these markets exist in different parts of the world, and we are seeing better products being developed every year. However, many of the incentives that have sustained these markets will end. We must quickly become more efficient through the entire value chain, not only with respect to manufacturing. We also have to closely consider the cost of BoS, and, of course, the capital investment.

Our analysis of a 1 MW solar farm in Italy shows us the following results: over the 20 year long "financial life" of the plant the cumulated cost of capital and taxes is 56% of the revenues. The cost of BoS, permitting and manufacturing, maintenance, insurance and administration accounts for 30%. And finally, the cost of the actual solar farm, its photovoltaic panels and equipment, represents only 14%. 
Consider now the huge amount of subsidies received by Chinese companies. So far the “big 5” alone have received more the 35 billion dollars, and the total subsidy provided by China through its banks is probably close to $ 90 billion. Having no capital constrains, Chinese maufactuers are now starting to act as "global players", buying and financing projects worldwide, in order to sell their products. Their expansion strategy is successful because they concentrate on the financial side of the equation.

Western companies must take further steps towards vertical integration in order to reduce the "full cost" and achieve the Grid-Parity. The next frontier!

Franco Traverso

Franco Traverso, Silfab’s President and founding partner, is a pioneer of Italian photovoltaic technologies with 30 years of experience in the solar energy industry.

In 1981, Mr. Traverso established Helios Technology Srl spearheading a unique path in PV breakthrough; as Helios’ CEO, he developed a robust technology platform and several important international patents. In addition, he developed small and large PV systems, launched a production line of CZ ingots and wafers, and performed technology transfers in India, Sweden and South Africa.

In the early 90’s, he started a joint-venture with a Russian company and founded a silicon wafer production company, Solaris d.o.o., in Croatia.

With the creation of Silfab in 2007, Traverso opened a new chapter dedicated to developing an integrated supply chain based on a ‘green-to-green’ business model, installing a wide network of new generation high-efficiency solar farm and launching new high-performing PV mono and multi-crystalline modules with a power up to 300 Wp. Last summer (2010), he founded the subsidiary Silfab Ontario Inc., a Canadian-based modules manufacturing company with an annual production capability slated to reach 180 MW.  


The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag

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