Solar Sell: Soitec CEO Argues Case for its Advanced Solar Technology in San Diego

The French semiconductor manufacturer Soitec generated headlines in San Diego last month when it said it has been working with Tenaska Solar Ventures to develop a 150-megawatt solar plant in the desert east of San Diego—at an estimated cost of $500 million.

To support the project Soitec also revealed plans to build a factory somewhere in San Diego County to manufacture the proprietary solar panels that will be used to generate enough electricity for an estimated 55,000 households in the San Diego area.

Yesterday, Soitec Chairman and CEO André-Jacques Auberton-Hervé returned to San Diego with what he calls “a California story, but from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.” He briefed local reporters about the project, which needs a federal loan guarantee to secure financing, and later met with local officials to garner their support.

Soitec says its Concentrix Solar CPV (concentrating photovoltatic) technology converts sunlight into electric power at better than 37 percent efficiency for direct current, or at roughly 25 percent for alternating current. With some additional advances, Auberton-Hervé says the company’s technology should enable Soitec to increase the energy output of its solar modules to an unprecedented 50 percent DC efficiency in coming years.

As part of Soitec’s broader corporate strategy, Auberton-Hervé says the company’s Concentrix Solar division has worked with Chevron to complete construction of a 1-megawatt solar facility north of Taos, in Questa, NM. Auberton-Hervé says the facility, which has 173 Concentrix Solar panels that track the sun to maximize energy production, represents Soitec’s first “utility scale” project in the United States—and the first in a series of solar ventures the company aspires to develop. At least 30 states have established minimum requirements for renewable energy (California recently enacted a requirement for 33 percent renewable energy by 2020), making the U.S. an attractive market, especially in the sunbelt states, according to Auberton-Hervé.

André-Jacques Auberton-Hervé

Auberton-Hervé co-founded Soitec in 1992 with Jean-Michel Lamure to commercialize so-called “atomic scalpel” technology that is used to create multiple, ultra-thin layers in the silicon wafers used to make semiconductors. The technology led them to develop Silicon-On-Insulator (the “SOI” in Soitec) material, which has helped semiconductor makers create faster and more powerful processors by shrinking the distance between microcircuit patterns from 180 nanometers to less than 45 nanometers.

Soitec has grown from four employees in 1992 into a public company and global player in the semiconductor industry, with about 1,200 employees and a market valuation equivalent to roughly $1.4 billion, Auberton-Hervé says.

The CEO says Soitec’s solar strategy began to emerge in 2003, when the company perceived an opportunity to expand into the market for photovoltaic cells, the semiconductor devices that convert sunlight directly into electricity. The Soitec CEO says it was clear that innovations in semiconductor performance and efficiency would drive demand for photovoltaic (PV) cells, which would eventually become a high-volume global market.

Soitec’s proprietary CPV modules use Fresnel lenses that concentrate sunlight 500 times, focusing the sun’s radiant energy onto small, highly efficient multi-junction solar cells. Concentrating the solar energy in this way makes it possible to use high-performance solar cells that operate more efficiently—and would be perhaps too expensive to cover larger areas. The company says the combination of its concentrating lenses and high-performance PV chips enables it to achieve a “world-leading” AC system efficiency that is almost twice as high as the efficiency of conventional silicon systems.

Soitec says the technology was developed at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, Europe’s largest solar research institute, which founded Concentrix Solar as a spin-off in 2005 to commercialize its breakthrough. Soitec acquired Concentrix Solar in 2009, and has established manufacturing plants and R&D centers for the technology in France, Singapore, Germany, and the United States (in Phoenix, AZ).

The 150-megawatt project that Tenaska has proposed for the Imperial Valley is designed to provide power to San Diego via the Sunrise Power Link now being built by San Diego Gas & Electric. Progress on the project, however, depends on the developers’ success in winning a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy for roughly half of the $500 million project. Once that DOE loan guarantee is awarded, and Soitec completes its agreement with Tenaska, the company plans to proceed with construction of its Concentrix factory in the San Diego area and pursue options for related financing.

After Soitec completes work on the factory, which is expected by early 2013, Auberton-Hervé says the company plans to create 450 solar manufacturing jobs in the San Diego area. Adding that many jobs could be a powerful incentive in winning political support for the DOE loan guarantee—and in forestalling any concerns that might arise about a French energy company becoming the potential beneficiary of a U.S. loan guarantee.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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