Sep 13 2007

Warming Up to Solar Energy

Startup Miasolé has big designs on the growing solar panel market.
Stephen Barry and David Pearce
Photo: Robert Houser
Miasolé’s Stephen Barry (left) and David Pearce say technology dependence pervades the solar panel startup, from back-office administration to the manufacturing of the super-thin panels.

Miasolé’s forecast for tomorrow and every day into the future? Sunny.

The Silicon Valley startup is developing solar panel technology that is cheaper to produce, which will make it more affordable for businesses, homeowners and utility companies. Miasolé — “my sun” in Italian — hopes to capture a piece of the exploding market that turns free sunlight into electricity.

With fossil fuels running out and as the world population grows more concerned with global warming, companies that produce renewable forms of energy have become hot commodities in the venture capital community. Miasolé, which has raised more than $100 million in VC funding, is among a growing number of well-funded startups racing to develop thin-film solar panels made of copper indium gallium di-selenide (CIGS).

The new companies are competing against well-entrenched solar products manufacturers that produce panels from silicon, the same material used to produce computer processors. With silicon in short supply, the expense of producing the panels has hindered the solar market. Miasolé CEO David Pearce believes his company can capitalize with its less expensive alternative when it goes into full-scale production later this year. Technology, he says, is at the core of everything Miasolé does, from designing its solar cells to manufacturing them.

“What we’re doing is all about technology,” he says. “It’s helped us refine our manufacturing process and design our equipment. We couldn’t have done it without collecting data, data mining and computer-aided design software.”

The Santa Clara, Calif., company also relies heavily on technology to run its administrative operations. Its workforce has grown from 50 to 150 people in the past year, and it opened a factory in Shanghai, China. During that same period, Miasolé has upgraded its data center to handle increased e-mail and other server demands and has created an intranet to foster employee collaboration. The company has also increased network security to protect intellectual property and installed a Voice over Internet Protocol phone system to reduce the cost of calls between its California and China offices, says Stephen Barry, Miasolé’s vice president of operations, who manages IT.

“The administration of our business is no different than anybody else’s when it comes to infrastructure,” Barry says. “We’re as sophisticated and as dependent as anyone on Internet communications.”

Long History

The company’s founders — Pearce and Miasolé chief technology officer Dennis Hollars — have a rich technology background that goes back nearly 20 years. Pearce says manufacturing techniques that they’ve developed and that revolutionized the hard-disk drive market in the early 1990s benefit Miasolé today.

When they ran Domain Technology in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they used a complex manufacturing process called sputtering, which deposits a thin film of materials onto a surface in a vacuum. Domain developed the world’s fastest disk-sputtering system, which could produce 3,000 hard disks an hour, says Pearce, who later sold the technology to storage maker Seagate Technology.

Hollars and Pearce next started RayCom Technologies, which used sputtering to help build components for optical networking equipment. After the optical networking market tanked, they turned their focus on the solar panel market and launched Miasolé in early 2003.

For the past five years, the company’s goal has been to develop new thin-film solar panels by combining sputtering expertise with 30 years of government and university research on solar technology. In its 111,000-square-foot headquarters, Miasolé has spent years building prototypes and perfecting the manufacturing process for sputtering CIGS onto stainless steel foil.

“We are up against silicon, a mature technology that has been perfected and refined over the past 30 years or so,” Pearce says. “But from a theoretical perspective, thin-film solar panels can be just as effective.”

Even so, he expects Miasolé to become one of the first companies to mass-produce thin-film solar panels later this year. At 50 microns thick, the solar cells are thin enough that builders will be able to layer them into roofing and building materials, Pearce says.

“This is challenging material to work with,” he says. “There’s 30 years of government-funded research that was done on solar cells no bigger than your thumbnail, and the real challenge at this point is scaling that into high-volume repeatable processes.”

Tech-Driven Manufacturing

Besides using diagnostic tools, such as infrared cameras and electron microscopes, as part of the manufacturing process, Miasolé also relies heavily on computers with custom and commercial software to build the solar panels. The company, which has 12 servers in its data center, also collects and stores vast amounts of data as part of its development and manufacturing process.

$69.3 billion
The expected worldwide solar panel market in 2016, up from $15.6 billion in 2006.

Source: Clean Edge, www.cleanedge.com

Scientists, engineers, managers and administrative staff all use computers specifically selected to support their work. Technicians, for example, have access to a centrally located kiosk outfitted with desktop computers, while some senior managers and technical staff depend on notebook computers and office docking stations.

Employees do 3-D modeling and design work using CAD software. Through data mining, staff members review research materials and study what works and what doesn’t in the manufacturing process. To that end, the design and development teams capture information, such as gas temperatures, gas pressures and other variables when creating panels. The goal has been to boost the efficiency of the super-thin panels that turn a high percentage of the sunlight that hits them into electricity.

“Every second, we are gathering process data,” Pearce says. “We bar-code every cell with a unique number in the process, and if a particular group of cells and material yields higher efficiency, we can go in and analyze what it was in the process that resulted in the higher efficiency.”

Two software programmers work solely on analyzing data stored in Microsoft Access and SQL Server databases, Barry says. “If the results were unfavorable, we investigate the process conditions and take corrective action.”

Beyond CAD

Miasolé has hired an IT company to manage its business systems. Two full-time IT administrators oversee these servers and computers.

The company has made numerous upgrades to its technology over the past year, says Barry, who joined the company in late 2006. The startup traded a handful of its aging servers for more powerful replacements, including a Microsoft Exchange e-mail server, so it can handle e-mail from an influx of new employees.

Miasolé has also built password-protected intranet sites using Microsoft SharePoint Server so that employees can collaborate on projects and swap files.

In the past, remote access to company servers was through a virtual private network. But that wasn’t enough to sufficiently secure Miasolé’s corporate data, Barry says. The company required virtually impenetrable security for sensitive corporate R&D data.

It reconfigured the backbone network, building a demilitarized zone (DMZ) behind a corporate firewall, where the company makes available common files, such as engineering documentation, to employees. Highly confidential corporate data is housed in a virtual vault, and only a small group of employees can access it, Barry says.

Because the company will begin selling products soon, Miasolé recently purchased Oracle’s family of accounting, marketing and sales, and supply-chain management software to help run its business. Implementation will begin this winter.

On the Horizon

The startups focusing on CIGS-based thin-film solar panels, such as Miasolé, Nanosolar and HelioVolt, all have the potential to revolutionize the solar energy market, says Ron Pernick, co-founder of Clean Edge, a clean technology research and consulting firm in San Francisco. “The question right now is: Which of the CIGS players will get out there and prove that they can mass-produce a continuous flow of thin-film technology?”

Miasolé has the potential to succeed, Pernick says. But it has to prove that its technology can do three things: be as efficient as silicon panels in turning solar energy into electricity, be less expensive and have a long life span.

Although its initial panels likely will be priced at 20 percent below silicon panels, Miasolé expects that it can achieve a 70 percent reduction as it expands production.

Pearce looks forward to bringing his product to market and is optimistic that the company will be able to take advantage of pent-up demand for solar technology.

“Solar is just an enormous market opportunity because the fuel is free. A key metric to consider is that less than one-tenth of 1 percent of electrical generation is solar. It’s a wide open market,” Pearce says. “There’s a lot of interest in thin-film solar technology because it holds the promise of substantially reduced costs. We have the potential to create a large company that will clearly support revenue of $1 billion and eventually tens of billions.”


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