Technology Review has an article on another monster factory being planned by Elon Musk - this one for solar panels rather than battery storage - to support his SolarCity business - Elon Musk Needs a Very Big Factory for His New Solar Technology.
Billionaire, Tesla founder, and private space entrepreneur Elon Musk announced yesterday that Solar City, the solar installation company where he is chairman, plans to acquire a startup called Silevo for $200 million (plus up to $150 million more if the company meets certain goals). And with typical bravado, he also said that the company plans to build a huge factory to produce Silevo’s high-efficiency solar panels, a strategy he claims will make solar power “way cheaper” than power from fossil fuels.
Solar City is one of the country’s largest and fastest-growing solar installers, largely as a result of an innovative business model that allows homeowners and businesses to avoid any up-front cost. If its plans pan out, it will also become a major manufacturer of solar panels, with by far the largest factory in the U.S.
The acquisition makes sense given that Silevo’s technology has the potential to reduce the cost of installing solar panels, Solar City’s main business. But the decision to build a huge factory in the U.S. seems daring—especially given the recent failures of other U.S.-based solar manufacturers in the face of competition from Asia. Ultimately, however, Solar City may have little choice—it needs to find ways to reduce costs to keep growing.
Silevo produces solar panels that are roughly 15 to 20 percent more efficient than conventional ones. They incorporate thin films of silicon, which increase efficiency by helping electrons flow more freely out of the material, and they use copper rather than silver electrodes to save costs. Higher efficiency can yield big savings on installation costs, which often exceed the cost of the panels themselves, because fewer panels are needed to generate a given amount of power.
Silevo isn’t the only company to produce high-efficiency solar cells. A version made by Panasonic is just as efficient, and SunPower makes ones that are significantly more so (see “Record-Breaking Solar Cell Points the Way the Cheaper Solar Power”). But Silevo claims it could make its panels as cheaply as conventional ones if it can scale up from its current production capacity of 32 megawatts to the factory Musk has planned, which is expected to produce 1,000 megawatts or more.