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Ramping Up Solar Manufacturing… with help from Intel

For one smallish solar manufacturer, having Walmart as a customer changes things a bit. Miasolé makes thin film copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) modules. Back in September, the company was named as one that would supply thin film technologies to Walmart for rooftop installations in stores in California and Arizona.

Miasolé plans to expand its CIGS manufacturing. Credit: Miasolé

CIGS have been around a while, but still have a very small market share compared to traditional crystalline silicon panels. And, as experts in the industry have pointed out to me, one need only read the name of the technology slowly to oneself to understand that the manufacturing requirements may be rather… complex.

With the Walmart order (which will go through leading  retail solar firm Solar City), Miasolé now plans to ramp up capacity to 150 MW by the end of 2011, triple its current abilities. So the company has brought in Intel, the computer chip maker, to help. Apparently Intel can do this cool thing where it makes a whole lot of exactly the same thing. They’ve named this competency the “Copy Exactly! methodology.”

Interestingly, in its own manufacturing efforts, Intel works closely with manufacturing equipment supplier Applied Materials, which once made a big move into supplying  thin-film solar makers but has significantly lessened its exposure to that market in recent years. That was back when thin film meant solar made with amorphous silicon.

For many years now, however, the leader in thin film manufacturing has been First Solar, which makes cadmium telluride cells (also being bought by Walmart). First Solar is now ramped up to 1 GW in annual production.

Miasolé says it is the only thin film solar firm to use what it characterizes as a low cost sputtering process for its materials deposition. Maybe Applied Materials will be dragged back into solar manufacturing  — and in a new way — if it gets involved in the project along with Intel.

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