Get Bendy: Flexible Solar Panel Company Opens Oregon Factory

A flexible SoloPower PV unit | Photo courtesy SoloPower

Despite a climate of retrenchment and contraction among solar cell producers, a San Francisco Bay Area startup company opened a factory in Portland, Oregon this week to produce what looks to be a promising thin-film solar technology. Solopower, launched in 2005, hopes its lightweight, flexible panels will offer a solution for rooftops that aren't capable of bearing the weight of conventional solar photovoltaic (PV) panel modules and frames.

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The San Jose-based company manufactures copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) thin-film solar cells on a flexible backing that can be put in place with minimal framing and support -- or, from the looks of the photos available on SoloPower's website, no framing at all.

If the company can conquer some of the quality control issues that have plagued CIGS PV in the past, the product may well offer a way to increase solar generating capacity on industrial and commercial rooftops. Though large buildings such as big box stores, warehouses, and shipping centers offer a very large amount of sunny rooftop, many such buildings don't have roofs sturdy enough to hold large installations of conventional PV, with its relatively heavy panels and the mounts that are often needed to hold them in place. Reinforcing roofs costs money, and those buildings often aren't built any stronger than they need to be. Adding several tons of permanent load in the form of rooftop solar is asking more of some commercial roofs than they can safely deliver.

SoloPower has developed solar modules that consist of a CIGS layer laminated to a thin, flexible stainless steel sheet that can be placed on roofs without heavy mounting hardware, and without putting holes in the roof as well.

Opening the Portland factory will help SoloPower qualify to get its hands on the $197 million the U.S. Department of Energy awarded it last year in the form of a loan guarantee. The factory will eventually have a production capacity of 400 megawatts per year; a quarter of that capacity opened this week.

The combination of "Bay Area startup," CIGS PV, and Department of Energy loan guarantees has prompted some observers to place SoloPower's factory opening in the context of Solyndra, the bankrupt Fremont-based CIGS manufacturer that famously defaulted on a larger DOE loan. Aside from those similarities, though, the companies' outlooks might be very different. In addition to management deficiencies, Solyndra was burdened with an unnecessarily complex and expensive technology, while SoloPower's tech approach is much more straightforward -- roll out a sheet and glue it down -- and comes with its own built-in market sector. It will be interesting to see how the company fares.

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