Masdar completes building of major German solar panel factory

15 July 2009 – Masdar PV, the solar panel maker owned by the Abu Dhabi Government, has finished building a factory in Germany that will test a $600m strategy to focus on low-cost energy panels.

Masdar has invested heavily in thin-film solar panels, a fast-growing technology that is cheaper but less efficient than traditional silicon crystal.

The company is hoping to undersell a number of thin-film competitors by making the largest such panels in the world, measuring 5.7 square metres.

Masdar PV, a subsidiary of Masdar, will each year produce thin-film panels with a total capacity of 65 MW at the plant in Ichtershausen, central Germany.

Construction of a separate plant in Taweelah, Abu Dhabi, capable of producing enough panels each year for a total capacity of 130 MW, is scheduled to start by the end of this year.

The plants are a key part of Masdar’s strategy to develop its own sources of green technology and diversify Abu Dhabi’s industrial base into renewable energy.

“The outside building is complete and they’re probably going to move in on July 31,” a company spokeswoman told The National. “They are located in Germany because here you have the know-how, the technicians and you have the biggest PV market.”

Both plants could eventually be expanded in two stages to raise capacity four-fold, she said, meaning total capacity could one day reach 780 MW.

Masdar’s panels will made of amorphous silicon, a well-established thin-film technology. Masdar envisions that panels from its production line will supply commercial-scale power plants with acres of panels, or cover the large rooftops of malls and warehouses.

The panels from the two plants will be 10 per cent more efficient at converting sunlight into electricity than the average thin film result, the company said.

But amorphous silicon technology will face tough competition from two other types of thin film that could have lower production costs, said Francesco d’Avack, a solar analyst at New Energy Finance, a clearing house for data on renewables.

“It is certainly the most established of the technologies out there,” Mr d’Avack said. “The problem with amorphous thin-film silicon is that all the companies bought equipment and sourced material contracts last year.”

Since then, he said, prices for solar panels and silicon had fallen sharply, leaving amorphous silicon companies with higher costs than competitors.

“They’re pretty much stuck with a higher cost structure,” Mr d’Avack said. “It’s very costly for them to produce. But they have to get better at manufacturing these cells.”

A new type of panel material called CIGS, for copper indium gallium selenide, has the potential to compete at higher efficiency rates with amorphous silicon’s low costs, but CIGS producers “still face a lot of problems in the manufacturing process”, Mr d’Avack said.