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Innovative Solar Panel Maker Scales Up, Lowering Costs while Creating Jobs

May 16, 2011 - 12:41pm

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The end of Abound Solar’s PV manufacturing line | Photo Courtesy of Abound Solar

The end of Abound Solar’s PV manufacturing line | Photo Courtesy of Abound Solar

It's one thing to call solar energy a "growth industry," it's quite another to witness firsthand how quickly a company on the cutting edge of that industry can grow -- all the while growing jobs right here in America. The Department's Photovoltaic (PV) Technology Incubator program has brought me in contact with a number of dynamic solar startups that fit that mold. I highlighted one, PrimeStar Solar, on the Energy.gov blog, not long ago.

Coverage of America's effort to win the solar energy future would not be complete without featuring the start up company Abound Solar. Abound is using an innovative process initially developed at Colorado State University (CSU)  and refined with help from the PV Incubator to manufacture low-cost, thin-film Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) PV modules at commercial scale in the U.S., bringing us closer to the SunShot Initiative's goal of reducing the cost of utility-scale solar energy systems by about 75% before 2020.

Building on more than a decade of collaborative research with the Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Abound was a three-person startup in 2007, working out of a Colorado State University research lab. Today it is a globally-competitive solar panel manufacturer that employs 350, and soon to be three times as large, with factories in Colorado and Indiana.

Last year I visited Abound’s Longmont, Colorado factory, and what I saw was impressive in its elegance: large sheets of plain-looking glass go in on one side of the manufacturing line, sleek black solar panels come out the other in short order, ready to pack and ship to customers all over the world. This high-throughput, low-cost fabrication system is what gives Abound its edge -- and it was pioneered with sustained support from the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab.

Abound turned the critical corner during its participation in the PV Incubator program. One of the first companies selected for the Incubator, Abound was awarded $3 million over an 18 month period beginning in June 2007. In effect, those funds gave the company the means it needed to improve and demonstrate its technology. Private investors have recognized the technology’s value by committing $260 million in venture capital toward building Abound into a world-class thin film producer.

Mark Chen, Abound's director of marketing, explains the Incubator’s effect better than I could:

“Our involvement with the PV Incubator was instrumental in taking our technology from a laboratory setting to pilot stage production. Working with NREL, we were able to do a full blown cost analysis of our technology that proved we could build at a cost substantially below $1 per watt when fully scaled. Our collaboration with the PV Incubator lent us a great deal of credibility within the solar industry and venture capital community and provided guidance early on that gave additional structure to our growth plans.”

Those growth plans were further accelerated in December 2010, when the Department’s Loan Programs Office offered Abound a $400 million loan guarantee  to expand its existing manufacturing facility in Longmont, Colorado and build a new plant in Tipton, Indiana, that it expects to be on-line in 2014. When both projects are complete, Abound will be able to produce 840 megawatts (MW) of solar modules per year -- a scale that makes it possible to build more panels for less money, sharpening the company’s competitive edge and driving job creation to the tune of 1,200 new jobs in ongoing manufacturing and operations.

Abound Solar is one of many Department of Energy partners that have benefitted from the PV Technology Incubator. By ensuring that the most promising solar technologies get out of the lab, into the hands of entrepreneurs, and in front of venture capitalists, our Solar Energy Technologies Program is helping American innovators to win the energy future and meet the SunShot Initiative’s goals for making solar energy cost competitive with fossil fuels by the end of the decade.

 

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