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Abound Solar nails DOE loan for thin-film factory

Thin-film solar manufacturer finalizes $400 million in loan guarantee and raises $110 million in equity to ramp up solar manufacturing in U.S.

Abound Solar has secured $510 million to ramp up production of its thin-film solar panels and compete in the cut-throat pricing of the global solar photovoltaics industry.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu is scheduled to host a conference call today with Abound Solar CEO Tom Tiller to announce that the Fort Collins, Colo.-based company has finalized a $400 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy. It also raised $110 million in equity from existing private investors, one of the requirements for getting the loan.

Abound Solar's thin-film solar cells are coated onto two layers of glass.
Abound Solar's thin-film solar cells are coated onto two layers of glass. Abound Solar

With the money, Abound Solar can boost production to 200 megawatts a year by 2012 at its existing facility in Longmont, Colo., which started making solar modules with cadmium-telluride cells in September. It also intends to open a second facility in Indiana that will eventually have the capacity to manufacture at a rate of 640 megawatts per year, according to Russ Kanjorski, vice president of marketing for Abound Solar.

It's the second loan guarantee given out to a solar photovoltaics company from the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program, which has dispensed over 30 loan guarantees to energy and auto companies to finance large-scale energy related investments, such as manufacturing or renewable energy projects.

Abound Solar, which was founded in 2007, makes solar modules for the large-scale commercial and utility solar installations. Its automated manufacturing technology, which came out of Colorado State University, is similar to how dual-pane windows are made, explained Kanjorski.

A robot sends a glass plate into a deposition chamber where two cadmium compounds are turned into a gas and then deposited as solid layers onto the glass. A second piece of glass is fit onto the first and the edges are sealed with rubber and silicone. No frames are used.

With its first factory, the company expects to produce panels at under one dollar per watt, Kanjorski said. That's more expensive than industry-leader First Solar, which also makes cadmium-telluride solar cells, but less expensive than the typical rate for polycrystalline silicon manufacturers. GE is also readying entry into the market with its own cadmium-telluride cells.

With improvements in cell efficiency and greater scale, the company expects it can get prices below where they are now. The process is quicker than other thin-film companies and has a relatively low cost of capital to operate, Kanjorski said.

Abound Solar has partnerships with systems integrators, which are now testing its panels for utility and commercial projects, mainly in Europe, he added.

Without the DOE loan guarantee, Abound Solar would not be able to commercialize its technology, Kanjorski said. "It has been very vigorous over the past two years. The amount of due diligence to make sure the technology worked was quite high," he said.

The other DOE loan guarantee provided to a solar photovoltaic manufacturer went to Solyndra, which built a factory in California, its second, to make solar modules built by layering thin-film solar cells over glass tubes. Solyndra says there is demand for its solar collectors, but it faces tough pricing competition and was forced to shut down its first plant this fall.