Tucson has emerged as a region rich in the development and production of solar technology and manufacturing. BizTucson profiles five of the companies at the innovative forefront of this exciting global industry.
While the world squabbles over oil, the nation’s trade deficit widens and coal-fired power plants add to global warming, Tucson sits on more than 350 days a year of a brilliant source of renewable energy - sunshine.
Yet it took skyrocketing prices on traditional energy sources, a change in the political climate and piqued concerns over climate change to help Tucson see the light.
The result? Tucson is becoming a prime location for solar technology, said U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona. She thinks southern Arizona is such a hot spot for solar technology that it will become the “Solar-con Valley” of the nation.
Giffords is doing her part in Congress to make that happen. Her efforts to promote the solar industry include the Solar Energy Research and Advancement Act, a comprehensive energy package designed to promote the use of solar energy and further the industry.
That came on the heels of the Arizona Corporation Commission’s approval of the Renewable Energy Standard and Tariff. The so-called REST requires electric utilities to generate 15 percent of the total electricity they sell from renewable resources, including solar, by 2025.
Such aggressive standards foster a potential for significant growth and development of the solar industry in the state, said Laura Shaw, senior vice president of marketing and communications for Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities, Inc.
Shaw says southern Arizona’s advantages go beyond government initiatives and abundant sunshine. “The Tucson region also offers abundant, educated human capital to support the solar and renewable industries,” she said.
Giffords agrees: “Arizona is fortunate to have the energy sources, the brain power and the entrepreneurial spirit to harness solar energy and make it work for us.”
It is too early to predict the ultimate economic impact of solar technology in Tucson, but the region is already a significant player in the international solar energy marketplace, Shaw said.
“Global Solar, Schletter, Inc., Prism Solar, SOLON Corporation, General Plasma and more than 35 other companies supply and install solar products right here in Tucson,” she said. “It’s definitely an emerging, very promising industry.”
In October, SOLON Corporation opened a state-of-the-art production facility for the solar industry in a former IBM plant near Tucson International Airport.
SOLON, a subsidiary of Germany-based SOLON SE – one of the largest solar module manufacturers in Europe - employs about 105 people in Tucson, where it manufactures crystalline and thin-film solar modules as well as massive turnkey photovoltaic systems for the North American market.
In its initial phase, the plant produces materials that can generate up to 100 megawatts, enough power to meet the annual electrical needs of about 800 homes, said Olaf Koester, president and CEO of SOLON. A watt is a term used to describe power consumption. For instance, a 60-watt light bulb consumes 60 watts of power in one hour. A megawatt is one million watts.
Koester said government action is helping boost the solar industry in Tucson. “The recent legislation on tax breaks for the construction of solar power systems creates a secure framework for the further expansion of renewable energies in the U.S. and will accelerate their growth,” he said.
To demonstrate the effectiveness of solar power, SOLON recently made a deal with The University of Arizona to donate 470 photovoltaic modules - $229,000 worth of panels - to the UA’s Biosphere 2 science project near Oracle. The modules are slated to provide more than 40 kilowatts of energy per year. In addition, this effort will aid in research and promote education about solar energy.
SOLON’s Tucson location also developed a version of the Toyota Prius that accommodates charging the hybrid car from external power sources, such as a solar generator. SOLON plans in the near future to install a solar filling station on the company’s manufacturing site.
In December, SOLON was awarded a contract with Pima County to construct, operate and maintain a one-megawatt facility capable of providing about 40 percent of the Roger Road Wastewater Treatment Plant’s annual requirements. It is estimated that the reduced use of coal and natural gas that will result from this facility will equal 64,000 tons of carbon emissions during the 20-year term of the contract.
Tucson also is the home base to Global Solar Energy Inc., located off Rita Road next to The University of Arizona Science and Technology Park. Global Solar Energy is a leading manufacturer of thin-film Copper Indium Gallium diSelenide (CIGS) photovoltaic (PV) modules, said Tim Teich, vice president of sales and marketing for the company.
The products are flexible, lightweight and durable. This allows highly efficient CIGS portable solar panels to be folded and carried in a backpack, then unfurled and used to charge batteries in cell phones, GPS units and other portable electronic devices. This has applications for both civilian and military use. What’s more, the material doesn’t degrade in efficiency as it’s used.
CIGS creates more electricity from the same amount of sunlight compared to other thin-film photovoltaic technology, and therefore has higher conversion efficiency.
Tucson’s Global Solar Energy, a privately held U.S. corporation that was launched in Tucson in 1996, produces portable solar chargers, ranging from 6.5 to 62 watts. The chargers are sold around the world through commercial distribution and military organizations.
When fully operational, the Tucson plant will produce 140-megawatts of material per year, Teich said. A sister plant in Germany will put out 35-megawatts annually. Currently, neither of the Global Solar plants is operating at full capacity, he said.
“The company has completed phase one of it’s manufacturing expansion. Now Tucson can produce 40 megawatts (MW) of thin-film solar cells,” Teich said.
Global Solar also announced in December that its Tucson operation would create the world’s largest solar electric array, a 750-kilowatt system, using CIGS photovoltaic technology.
Another solar company from Tucson, SOLON Corporation, produced and installed the PV modules that cover some 310,000 square feet in a ground-mounted array at Global Solar’s Tucson plant.
The solar field is located at Global Solar and is financed, owned, and operated by MMA Renewable Ventures. The array, which Tucson Electric Power helped develop by agreeing to purchase renewable energy credits generated there, is capable of offsetting 30,000 tons of carbon dioxide over the 25-year life of the material, Teich said. The solar field is expected to provide about a quarter of the required energy to operate the Global Solar Energy plant.
Another Tucson technology company, German-owned Schletter, Inc., designs, manufactures and distributes solar mounting systems. The company opened its Tucson plant in March 2008 and operates a 22,000-square-foot plant near West Grant and North Silverbell roads at 2520 N. Jackrabbit Ave.
The company said on its website it chose Tucson because “Tucson just happens to have more sunshine per year than any other major city in America.
“Pursuing the chances of solar-power across the globe, we decided to start our U.S. operations in Tucson,” said Martin Hausner, CEO, Schletter Inc. “We looked at locations in Phoenix and Flagstaff, as well as cities in Colorado and California, but we found Tucson most appealing based on living costs, taxes and shipping costs.”
The mounting systems, fabricated from aluminum or stainless steel, accommodate large-scale photovoltaic systems in the United States and Mexico, said Sven Kuenzel, senior sales manager. The North American division of Schletter, Inc is owned by Schletter GmbH and Martin Hausner. Schletter has 40 years of experience in engineering, design and manufacturing stainless steel and aluminum components. For the past 18 years Schletter has produced racks for the solar industry and has been a pioneer in the business.
Schletter is the largest provider for solar mounting systems in Europe, supplying utility-size photovoltaic projects including the world’s largest PV-plant near Leipzig, Germany. The Tucson unit employs 17 workers and has an annual capacity of making fixtures - to mount 100 megawatts of solar gear.
Schletter employs more than 640 workers in seven countries including the United States. The company in Tucson expects to employ 40 workers by the end of the year. No job is too small or too large, the company says.
Kuenzel pointed out that many European countries are dabbling in solar technology, but Germany is a world leader in solar because its government offers generous incentives for solar development.
“The incentives are guaranteed by law and every utility must pay them,” Kuenzel said. The utilities then pass those costs onto the customers.
“The German people finance the whole thing,” he said. “Every household has to pay about 20 Euros each year with their energy bill to finance the renewable energies.”
John Madocks, president of General Plasma, Inc., started his Tucson business in 1997 in his garage. Today, he employs more than 50 workers, many of them engineers, at his facility at 546 E. 25th St.
While General Plasma does not build solar panels, the company does make components used by other companies to manufacture solar panels, said Madocks. He is well known in the technology world of thin vacuum equipment used to apply extremely thin coatings on materials used in making solar cells, low-e coatings, and security films.
While the sour economy has had a dramatic effect on the entire international solar market, Madocks said, he is surviving because his company has been able to invent new solutions that save customers money. That has allowed his company to expand without outside capital or debt financing, he said. And the future looks bright. “Looking ahead, with our patent portfolio growing, we have tremendous potential when the market picks up.”
Madocks holds several patents for such work and specializes in applications requiring large area vacuum coatings. General Plasma says it offers innovative, cost effective solutions to most jobs requiring the coatings.
Another up and coming local solar technology company is Prism Solar Technologies, Inc., which designs and manufactures high-efficiency holographic film and solar modules that improve solar collection by 200 to 300 percent, said Glenn Rosenberg, chief technology officer for the company. Prism Solar Technologies was formed in 2005. “We partner with leading manufacturers to help them integrate holographic film into silicon and thin-film based solar modules,” Rosenberg explained,” he said. One of his devices, the Holographic Planar Concentrator (HPC), is the key technology in Prism Solar products.
The HPC acts as an extremely low-cost concentrator, increasing the energy seen by solar cells without mechanical tracking or the need for cooling systems, he explained. Holographic film, which is applied in strips alongside PV cells, concentrates direct, diffused and reflected light to the cells, over a wide range of incident angles.
“The result is a solar module that uses dramatically less expensive solar cell material to generate greater output energy (than) conventional modules.”
The University of Arizona also is out front in embracing and furthering solar development. For example, on Earth Day 2009, April 22, UA and APS Energy Services announced the formation of a partnership to advance solar technology. Soon, several buildings will sport up to 3,200 photovoltaic panels and several solar water heaters, UA President Robert Shelton said at the Earth Day celebration.
The idea is to bring to the campus 500 kilowatts of solar generating power – about 10 percent of UA’s energy demand, and heat the university’s swimming pools.
Shelton said then that the impact of the move on annual greenhouse gas emissions will be equal to removing 405 passenger vehicles from America’s highways or the same as doing away with the CO2 emissions from the electricity used by 306 homes a year.
UA said APS Energy Services will own, operate and maintain the panels. The university will purchase the solar energy produced on campus.
Former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who is now Secretary for Homeland Security in the Obama Administration, is on record promoting Arizona as the “Saudi Arabia of solar energy within the United States.” During her stint as governor, she signed legislation that prevents homeowners’ associations from restricting the use of solar systems on homes in their neighborhoods.
“Tucson offers exceptional research and technology development, a young and educated workforce, growing supply chain opportunities and competitive operating costs,” Napolitano said of the city’s advantages for developing a solar industry.
The powerful natural resource that sends human and beast scurrying for shade this time of year has the potential to make Tucson an important player in the growing solar industry. Entrepreneurs and business people locally and internationally are recognizing the possibilities.