Solar cell manufacturers lack basic quality controls to ensure their products consistently produce the maximum wattage

By: Don Hauka 
 
Ancient Chinese tradition holds that when the stars align, the “Mandate of Heaven” — or the right to hold power — may pass from one ruler to another. So, it’s only fitting that the planets ruling the solar power generation space are lining up in Aurora Solar Technologies Inc.’s (TSX.V: ACU) CEO Michael Heaven’s favour.
 
China is a key driver in the global photovoltaic (PV) industry and strong demand from the Chinese market coupled with recent regulatory changes has analysts forecasting demand to reach 108GW in 2018. Not only is China increasing its capacity, its modernizing its solar power generation by requiring high-efficiency solar components for most new projects under its Top Runner program.
 
That means in the ultra-competitive PV cell manufacturing industry, companies that can produce the highest-efficiency solar cells have the edge in supplying the lucrative Chinese solar panel market. But most solar cell manufacturers lack basic quality controls to ensure their products produce the maximum wattage, which powers profitability.
 
That’s where Heaven and Aurora Solar Technologies come in.
 
“China is finally realizing that all of the production installed over the last five or six years is in need of an upgrade, isn’t producing the best possible cells that it can, and that bodes very well for us as those lines are going to be retrofitted and upgraded,” says Heaven, company co-founder.
 
“Basically, China’s multicrystalline commodity grade solar lines are already obsolete.”
 
Aurora’s infrared quality control systems measure and map the results of critical cell diffusion process where the electrical properties are created, providing real-time visualization and control of the diffusion furnace. That gives process engineers and production-line operators the means to correct faults that reduce both power output and profits.
 
The Aurora system measures the reflection of the infrared light, the interaction and re-combinations on the cell surface, as well as transmission. The resulting measurements can determine the doping concentration and its uniformity on both sides of the cell.
 
Aurora also has the edge on other measuring systems because the top and the bottom of the cells can be measured without touching them. Heaven says this is a crucial factor as solar cells become more complex with doping layers on both sides. The industry is increasingly using cells that capture sunlight from multiple angles and create more energy, like passivated emitter rear cells (PERC) and bifacial cells.
 
“There is no way to measure a bifacial cell other than by using our technique. That’s important because while right now only one to two per cent of the entire world solar cell production is bifacial, our projections show that will rise to 40 per cent in 10 years,” says Heaven.
 
“We’re really the only player in the market that is using the infrared technique, which gives us a real advantage for bifacial and mono-PERC cells.”
 
Industry experts like Dr. Radovan Kopecek, Managing Director, Advanced Cell Concepts at ISC Konstanz, praised Aurora’s Decima scanning systems as “an essential element to achieve a high level of quality and consistency in the production of bifacial cells” in an article published in SEMI Grid Magazine in March 2015.
 
“Aurora’s Decima measurement system shows a unique capability for measuring the sheet resistance of both the front side and the back side of our BiSoN bifacial wafers. No other method can accurately isolate the back side sheet resistance from the sheet resistance of the wafer ‘bulk.’ This capability is very helpful for monitoring and process control during the fabrication of this part of a bifacial cell,” Kopecek wrote.
 
“Additionally, the Decima performs all of its measurements with high accuracy and repeatability.”
 
Kopecek also noted that quality controls are increasingly essential in the ultra-competitive solar cell manufacturing sector: “Delivering mediocre quality in the medium and long term will cause enormous economic damage in a competitive environment in which customers become more and more conscious that the product they buy as a long term investment must be from a reliable supplier who will deliver reliable products.”
 
Heaven says solar panel manufacturing costs have dropped dramatically in the last three years as government subsidies have been cut and production has increased. Gone are the heady days when manufacturers could sell everything they produced for $3.50 a watt. Today, the price is just $0.30 a watt.
 
It was a single client that wanted quality control help to improve their bottom line that started Heaven and Co-Founder Gordon Deans down the road that would lead to the founding of Aurora Solar. Heaven brought his background in quality control systems in the paper and steel industries to the problem. And when he started analysing what was coming out of the firm’s furnaces, he was surprised.
 
“I thought okay, maybe five per cent of cells might be out of control, but instead when we started auditing the process, we saw 20 to 30 per cent — a third of their production was being downgraded and sold at less-than-desirable prices,” said Heaven.
 
“So the opportunity for us and for our clients is to eliminate that. It was worth over $1 million a year to one of our earliest adopters, who installed one of our systems a few years ago and then bought four more.”
 
Since that beginning, Aurora Solar has gone on to sell systems to major industry players like LG Electronics, Jinko Solar, and Hanwha Q CELLS, the latter two being members of the “Super League” of solar panel producers. Heaven says the company is focused on engaging the Super League moving forward.
 
“Our goal is to make sure that we get as much business out of that top tier in the marketplace, because they’re the ones selling higher power cells at higher gross margins to support their investment in our products and services,” he says.
 
Aurora Solar is uniquely positioned to achieve that goal because of their system and a solid management team with a great business plan, says Blake Desaulniers, Editor of Sustainable BV.com. Desaulniers cites Heaven’s experience in building Measurex, which provided cutting-edge control systems for the paper-making industry, and was later bought by Honeywell for $600 million.
 
“If you look at Mike’s history and what he did at Measurex and process controls for paper, he’s been there before,” says Desaulniers.
 
“Mike and Gordon don’t just know the technology side of it, they know how to build a company.”
 
Desaulniers says other factors like the continued growth of the solar industry, and increased demand in countries like China and India, in particular, are also in Aurora Solar’s favour. Other drivers include the forecast that U.S. solar PV capacity is expected to double over the next five years.
 
“The industry has been growing at 15 per cent a year for a long time and nobody is forecasting much lower than that as far out as we can see,” he says.
 
“Certainly it’s a growth industry and for Aurora to establish itself as a first mover in process controls — being potentially a best-of-breed solution both on mono PERC and bifacial cells — is a big deal.”
 
With global demand increasing solar capacity by between 15 per cent and 25 per cent a year, market revenues are expected to hit over $1.2 trillion by 2024. All that adds up to long-term growth potential for Aurora Solar, a company whose prospects don’t keep Desaulniers up at night worrying.
 
“Aurora Solar has long-term growth potential, it’s got good solid people behind it, it’s got great industry contracts, it’s intrinsically involved in the leading edge development of process controls for an industry that’s growing fast and really needs process controls,” he says.
 
“It’s really a great company from an investment perspective, something that you can get into now with a huge upside potential.”
 
That potential is starting to be realized. In 2017, Aurora Solar saw five-fold increase in revenue growth year-over-year and is on track for two to three-times revenue growth this current fiscal year. That’s a lot of stars aligning for the North Vancouver-based Aurora Solar Technologies Inc. (TSXV: ACU).
 
And all this from the bright idea of shining a light in dark places.
 
“This is a simple idea and clients that use it quickly realize that it makes a huge difference to their operation and it becomes mission-critical,” says Heaven.
 
“You can’t control what you can’t measure.”

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