U.S. company exports unique solar technology to China

08:34, July 01, 2011      

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When Evergreen Solar opened its productions site in Marlboro just outside from Boston in 2000, investors were convinced that the business would soon turn into a slam dunk.

The production focused on a unique new technology developed by scientists at the Ivy League Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) wasting less silicone during the manufacturing process and thus saving millions of dollars if used on a large scale.

In 2009, Evergreen Solar announced a joint-venture deal with the Jiawei Solarchina Co. and the government-owned Hubei Science & Technology Investment Co. The announcement was the starting point to move key elements of the production from the United States to Wuhan.

China has been a magnet for innovators and has invested heavily in Green Technologies. China is also a global leader in solar panel production. A 33-million-U.S.-dollar loan provided by the Wuhan government soon turned into an offer cash-strapped Evergreen Solar couldn't resist.

"The reason that we can't make the technology here is that the costs of manufacturing here in the U.S. are just too high. We can't make modules at a cost that is competitive with what people can do in China,"admits Evergreen Solar's Chief Technology Officer Larry Felton in a recent interview with Xinhua.

Evergreen Solar will invest 17 million U.S. dollars in cash and equipment in the Wuhan production site. "The reason we're going to China is that that's where the customers are and the solar industry is primarily a Chinese industry now. For us to be successful, we need to be close to our customers. For us to be close to our customers, we need to be in China."

As a result, Energy Solar will export its trademarked String Ribbon technology to China. The bottom layer of a solar panel is silicone based. Traditionally, the silicone is cut into pieces to match the size of a panel which generates waste during the slicing process as small pieces crumble off along the edges.

Evergreen Solar uses state-of-the-art furnaces to melt the silicone at 1,400 degrees Celsius that is then woven into thin film-like layers, so-called wafers, that don't need to be cut. If used in large-scale manufacturing, this process saves expensive silicone and ultimately millions of dollars. The technology will be introduced to China by U.S. scientists but the manufacturing will create jobs in China.

"Currently in China, we have a total of about 200 staff. And in the near future we will raise employment from 1,000 to 12,000 people," explained Henry Ng, the president of Energy Solar's Chinese operations. "And since Wuhan has one of the top universities in China, we can easily employ all these high quality and highly educated people to work for us."

The relocation to China also means that Evergreen Solar had to lay off several hundred people in Marlboro, a move that has raised critical voices in U.S. media reports.

Company executives emphasized that they do not want to participate in the blame game against the Obama administration. But unfilled hopes for financial incentives by the U.S. government did contribute to the decision to relocate the production to Wuhan.

During the presidential race in 2008, President Barack Obama promised to invest 150 billion U.S. dollars over a period of 10 years in innovative energy projects. In his 2010 State of the Union Address, he took a strong stand for innovation. "Last year, we made the largest investment in basic research and funding in history, an investment that could lead to the world's cheapest solar cells," he said."But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives."

According to a recent investigation by the Washington Post, 50, 000 companies and entrepreneurs applied for clean-energy funding since President Obama took office. However, 90 percent of the applications were rejected by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Evergreen Solar plans to expand manufacturing operations in Wuhan to 500 MW by 2012. "In the U.S., we're really good in making the wafer technology but we weren't really good at the cell part of the process. When we went to China and hired the right people over there who had the experience that problem yielded pretty quickly," Larry Felton explained. The result: U.S. innovation plus Chinese know-how equals a product not only "made in China" but also "created in China."

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