Solyndra said the tubes allow the CIGS material to capture optimal sunlight for a longer period than traditional flat panels. Solyndra’s 180-watt-peak panels—each made up of 40 cylinders in a one-meter by two-meter aluminum frame—have an efficiency of 12 percent to 14 percent, Gronet said.
That claim has not been third-party verified, but Gronet said Solyndra used standards from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to make that assessment. A reflective coating on the roof below the panel accounts for 20 percent of the output, he said.
The battle in thin film has been to achieve commercial production with a competitive cost-per-watt, best exemplified by industry leader First Solar. Solyndra declined to reveal its current production volume, cost-per-kilowatt hour, or the price of its panels. Gronet said the technology's price secrecy protects the profit margin along the supply chain.
Gronet said the aluminum frames snap together for installation at half the cost and a third of the time of traditional crystalline solar, assuming the customer doesn’t want added security to keep panels in place. Solyndra said installers can place panels on twice the space of flat roofs using the cylinder panels instead of flat crystalline panels because they don’t need to be tilted, can be placed over obstructions such as air ducts, and can be placed contiguously across a roof.
The design—40 one-inch-wide cylinders with one inch between each of them—allows the panels to sustain winds up to 135 miles per hour, while flat panels can sustain winds up to 95 miles per hour, he said.
Solyndra said it began production in July at its facility in Fremont, which is not yet running at its capacity of 110 megawatts a year. Solyndra expects the facility to produce 2 million cylinders a month when fully ramped. The company is in the planning stages of a second facility with a capacity of 420 MW a year.
Solyndra isn’t the sole CIGS maker pulling in big venture backing. In the third quarter of 2008, thin-film solar makers pulled in $620 million, with the majority going to CIGS technology.
Gronet said Solyndra’s manufacturing process hermetically seals the cylinder coated with a nano-layer of CIGS material inside a glass tube. The process uses thermal evaporation, a process pioneered by Boeing in the late 1970s. Solyndra developed its own equipment and outsourced the production of equipment.
The panels have been tested for safety and durability by Underwriters Laboratories, Gronet said. The panels are currently being tested at 10 beta sites, he said.
About three-fourths of the $1.2 billion is customer orders are expected to go to Europe, while the rest could go to the U.S. market, he said. Solyndra has more than 500 employees.