Solar startup SoloPower aims to do what Solyndra couldn’t

The timing isn’t the best. Amid a bleak past few months for many solar equipment manufacturers, startup SoloPower is next up at bat to show its skills at mass producing and selling flexible thin film solar panels and prove the merit of a controversial federal loan guarantee program.

The Silicon Valley company will officially mark the start of a 100 MW factory in Portland, Ore., on Thursday, its first commercial-size plant. The move is a big milestone for the venture-backed company because it will finally be able to produce its technology in high volumes, a must for any manufacturer to grab any significant market shares.

SoloPower’s CEO, Tim Harris, told us he has more orders than he will be able to fill in the near term, and he’s expecting to make a profit starting next year. “We are anxious to get this line started,” Harris said.

He won’t be the only one feeling anxious. SoloPower’s investors, such as Hudson Clean Energy Partners and Crosslink Capital, have collectively poured over $200 million into the company, and they’re still waiting for their pay day. Solar manufacturing is no longer the darling investment sector that it used to be, especially not since Solyndra failed spectacularly a year ago after accumulating over $1 billion in private equity and using nearly all of a $535 million federal loan guarantee to build a factory in California.

SoloPower is jumping into the market at a time when there remains a glut of solar panels and prices for them continue to fall quickly. Several dozen manufacturers in the U.S., Europe and Asia have filed for bankruptcies or shuttered factories in the past twenty-one months. Trade complaints have popped up in the U.S. and Europe against Chinese companies, which rose to prominence in the past five years with their huge factories and hefty financial help from their government. The complaints allege that Chinese companies have received government subsidies that give them unfair advantages and that they have sold goods at below cost.

SoloPower makes ultra-thin solar panels that use copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS) to convert sunlight into electricity. The technology belongs to a newer class of solar technology that has now been made infamous by Solyndra’s demise. It hasn’t helped that other CIGS startups also have had a hard time making the leap into mass production and needed rescuing from investors.

Unlike some of its brethrens, however, SoloPower is rolling out panels that aren’t encased in glass. Instead, its panels are made up of solar cells laid out on a sheet of stainless steel and can be laminated on to glue to roofing materials. It’s a design that targets commercial and industrial rooftops, particularly those that can’t support the weight of an array of glass-covered panels. It also should lower the cost of using and installing mounting equipment to support and stabilize solar panels.

SoloPower’s solar panel booth

Those advantages allow SoloPower to charge a bit more for its solar panels without increasing the cost of a project, Harris said. He declined to disclose the company’s production cost or panel pricing.

Although the factory will start with an annual production capacity of 100 MW, it will start making that many solar panels right away. As with any solar manufacturing operation, SoloPower will gradually increase production and trouble-shoot any problems with its equipment and process along the way. Harris expects the company’s production rate to reach 20 MW – maybe 30 MW — per year by the end of 2012. The company will likely ship 2 to 5MW of solar panels during the fourth quarter, he said. It should ramp up to a full-scale production by the end of next year.

Getting that first line up and running will be important for giving SoloPower access to a $197 million federal loan guarantee to help build the remaining 300 MW at the same site. The goal is to complete the entire 400 MW factory in 2014. The total cost of building the entire 400MW factory will be about $350 million. SoloPower appears to have signed more stringent terms for securing the loan guarantee than Solyndra. Harris said his company likely underwent a lot more scrutiny because it cinched the loan guarantee much later than Solyndra did.

Solyndra obtained the loan guarantee agreement in September 2009 while SoloPower finalized its deal in August 2011. If SoloPower is able to complete the factory project and hit its sales and profit goals, then it will  become a role model and will have achieved something that Solyndra couldn’t pull off.

Given how competitive the solar market has become, SoloPower is working on lining up investors — or joint venture partners –- who can sell and distribute its flexible thin films in regional markets. Harris cited Italy, Japan and Korea – he recently visited customers in Seoul, he said — as among the promising markets.