Tom Tiller is new to the solar industry.
He joinedVC-funded Abound Solar about 90 days ago as the new CEO and has the daunting challenge oframping up a cadmium telluride photovoltaic company from a relativestanding start to confront market behemoth First Solar and China’scrystalline solar dragons. Tiller was CEO of Polaris Industries (NYSE:PII) for nine years, a maker of snowmobiles, motorcycles and otherrecreational vehicles. Before his stint with Polaris, Tiller was withGeneral Electric for 15 years as general manager of GE Silicones, andbefore that, he was the vice president of manufacturing at GEAppliances. I spoke with him last night.
The cadmium telluridematerials system is not a slam dunk. It took First Solar a few decadesto get it right. Abound’s technology is not new either — it’s based on 15 years of research undertaken at the Colorado State University’sMaterial Engineering Laboratory. Other solar firms looking into CdTeinclude PrimeStar, Solexant, Wakonda, Sunovia, Willard & Kelsey, andXunlight26.
Abound, based in Loveland, Colo., already has 370 employees and isgrowing fast. The firm started production about six months ago andexpects to reach $1 per watt manufacturing cost quickly with a 65-megawatt line in a factory in Longmont, Colo.
Tiller claims that Abound’s patented technology is dramaticallysimpler than that used by First Solar. The CEO claims that First Solaruses six different steps in the semiconductor process and that Abounduses one machine. He also claims that his equipment has a 60 percentsmaller footprint and a lower cost with their "close space sublimationprocess."
Tiller said, "We don’t have to be cheaper than FirstSolar — we have to be cheaper than the other manufacturers."
Chevron is testing 190 kilowatts of Abound panels and the firm is also workingon a 2.4-megawatt project in Germany, according to the CEO. Their first facility has a capacity of about 200 megawatts.
First Solar’s FS Series 2 Modules put out between 70 and 77 watts ofnominal power. Tiller says that Abound is commercially selling panels in the mid 60-watt range, with 70-watt panels in reach.
The CEO revealed that the firm is intent on garnering DOE loanguarantees for factory buildout.
There is a toxicity risk to cadmium telluride that First Solar hasconfronted with a 100-percent take back program bonded by Swiss Re inthe event that First Solar is not around in 20 to 30 years. Abound also has a recycling program and Tiller is appreciative of First Solar’sefforts in spearheading the toxicity issues of cad tel.
There is also an availability risk in the tellurium market so firmsmay need to buy old lead or gold mines and set up recovery systems.There are some reliable and not-so-reliable voices on the web thatspeculate that First Solar and other CdTe PV firms will see priceincreases and material shortages in their raw material feedstocks.
DCM led Abound’s August 2008 $104 million funding round along withTechnology Partners, GLG Partners, Bohemian Companies, and Invus. Thatround was reportedly at a $750 million pre-money valuation. The company raised a previous round from Invus and a seed round, but it declinedto disclose the amounts of those rounds.
In the CEO’s estimation, "This company has the potential to be thenext great solar company."