Suniva: Solar 2.0 Company Launches with Innovative Technology

Suniva, the newest member company in Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), has actually been in the making for more than 30 years. The company, which will design, manufacture and market advanced solar energy cells, is the brainchild of Ajeet Rohatgi, director of the University Center of Excellence for Photovoltaic Research and Education at Georgia Tech.

Rohatgi, who also serves as founder and chief technology officer for Suniva, has been at Georgia Tech since 1985, when he started the Institute’s photovoltaic program. He has published nearly 300 papers on solar technology and been awarded 11 patents. Photovoltaics refer to a solar power technology that converts light from the sun directly into electricity.

“We’re not attempting to go into the lab and hoping in three years we’re going to come out with something that’s going to be radical and maybe will work. We already have something that works,” said John Baumstark, CEO of Suniva. “Ajeet has been creating and working on cells for a long time in his lab; he’s got 15 world record cells already. Today we are producing a product that is the best in the world.”

In September 2005, Rohatgi won a patent that allows solar cells to be manufactured in a new way. Compared with other solar technologies, this new process results in a superior solar-cell performance and efficiency with reduced production time and cost. The next step for Suniva will be creating these solar cells in a manufacturing line in high volume; Baumstark estimates the first ones will be rolling off the line by the end of 2008.

The solar cells that Suniva will manufacture begin with silicon, which is then highly purified and made into ingot, a metal molded into a simple shape. After a series of chemical processes, the ingot are sliced into wafers, which are processed into the solar cells. Solar cell manufacturers sell the completed cells to panel manufacturers and distributors who add electrical components, and then the panels go to installers, who put the solar panels on the roofs of residential and commercial buildings or other appropriate applications.

The core of Suniva’s strategy is to develop and maintain ultra high cell efficiency while using cheaper manufacturing technology and using much less silicon ingot, thereby reducing cost per kilowatt hour of electricity produced by the cells. Solar cell efficiency in the industry is currently at 16 percent (out of a 25 percent ceiling), but Rohatgi has already demonstrated a 19 percent efficiency in production cells without using exotic or hazardous materials in the process.

“Creating an extra one percent of efficiency actually creates 10 percent extra power,” explained Rohatgi. “That translates to millions of extra dollars in revenue without having to put any additional money into it. If you can do something clever without adding cost or even while reducing cost at the same time, that’s where we come in.”

The ultimate goal – for every solar-based company – is to achieve average peak-load grid level parity. Grid parity refers to the point at which photovoltaic electricity is equal to or cheaper than grid power (from electric utilities), the general purpose alternating current electricity during peak usage times. It has already been reached or surpassed in some locations around the world. Examples are Hawaii and other islands that use diesel fuel to produce electricity as well as in Italy, where photovoltaic power has been cheaper than retail grid electricity since 2006. Suniva’s goal goes one step further: to achieve average base-load grid parity that will make the cost to use its cells much more attractive to everyone.

“We are using less silicon, so we are looking for ways to reduce the cost and increase the efficiency,” noted Baumstark. “The cell is really key for reducing the overall cost of solar and getting it towards the grid parity you hear everybody talking about.”

Although solar energy currently accounts for less than two percent of the world’s energy needs, it is expected to grow to nine percent by 2030. Last year, the solar energy market posted $20 billion in revenue. By 2030, the European Photovoltaic Industry Association predicts that number will explode to $425 billion.

In October, Baumstark announced that Suniva had raised $5 million to ramp up the company and expand its technology. Venture firm New Enterprise Associates (NEA), located in Menlo Park, Calif. and Reston, Va., invested in Suniva.

“Using the Web analogy, we like to think of ourselves as a solar 2.0 company. In the first generation, there was a lot of money poured down the rabbit hole,” said Baumstark. “The reality is that investors now want something that is going to be commercially viable. That’s what NEA saw in this investment and why they got behind this.”

Already, Suniva has licensed the intellectual property from Georgia Tech and has hired both the head of research and development and manufacturing as well as marketing . Baumstark is also in the process of identifying potential manufacturing facilities and incentives and will soon sign a letter of intent to purchase a one-year supply of silicon.

“We’re putting together a world-class team, and we have the patents that we’ve licensed from Georgia Tech that have been created over the last 20 years,” Baumstark said. “The initial line will produce between $75 and $100 million in revenue, so we’ll scale very quickly. We’ll be profitable by year two.”

Suniva currently has seven employees but expects that number to grow exponentially to 1,000 in five years. Baumstark is banking on ATDC to help catapult Suniva to the next level.

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Writer: Nancy Fullbright