Applied Materials isn’t in the business of designing mounting systems to support solar panels.
But the Santa Clara, Calif.-based factory equipment maker hasengineered a rack that it hopes will help its customers find a wideracceptance for the supersized solar panels that can be made from itsSunFab equipment line.
Applied plans to erect a prototype of its mounting system at itscampus by the end of this month, said Jonathan Pickering, vicepresident of global marketing and business development at Applied.
The company’s engineers hope the new design would not only supportthe enormous solar panels that can be made with Applied’s equipment, italso would be able to shave installation costs.
The company plans to offer the design without charge to its customers or developers wishing to use its customers’ solar panels.
"We want our customers to have access to designs that they can takewith them to the developers," Pickering said. "We want to useoff-the-shelve materials that you can buy from multiple sources so thatit’s low cost."
Applied develops and sells equipment for making amorphous siliconsolar panels. It’s a type of technology in the early stages ofcommercialization. Some of Applied’s customers, such Sunfilm in Germanyand Green Energy Technology in Taiwan, only began production over thepast year.
Applied isn’t the only company making equipment for producingamorphous silicon. But it has staked a claim for being able to producepanels that are much, much larger than others.
In fact, each panel reaches 5.7 square meters – that’s eight timesthe size of a cadmium-telluride solar panel made by First Solar.
The large amorphous silicon panel is a sight to behold, but it alsopresents a tough challenge when it comes to production and installation.
Some amorphous silicon panel makers said they opted to buy factoryequipment from Applied competitors because they were concerned aboutquality control during the production process and challenges in settingthem up in the field.
"It’s difficult to install such large panels," said Frank O’Young, CEO of Sunner Solarin Taiwan, during an interview in June. Sunner opted to buy itsamorphous silicon thin-film equipment from Japanese firms Ulvac andNisshinbo.
Applied said the time it takes to make large panels is the same asfor small panels in certain key manufacturing steps, so it is in factmore efficient to make large panels. It is a formula that has workedwell for the flat panel display and semiconductor businesses, the twoother core markets for Applied.
Pickering also pointed out that Applied’s equipment, branded SunFab, could slice the full size panels into smaller ones.
Installing such large panels also can be tricky. Applied startedseeing racks designed by its customers and developers about a year agoand recognized that engineering a mounting system hefty enough tosupport its full size panels could remove a thorny issue for developers.
"When our customers go to developers, and developers evaluate thepanels and say, ‘What’s the mounting structures and costs?’ and ourcustomers can say this is ground mount structure we recommend,"Pickering said.
A growing number of solar energy equipment makers have invested timeand money on designing racks that they believe would shave installationcosts and complement their other offerings.
Solyndra, for example, hastouted its low-profile mounting system as key to lowering costs oferecting its tubes-filled solar panels on flat commercial rooftops.
Developers that have come up with mounting systems for Applied’s panels include Gehrlicher Solar in Germany.
Applied’s design is meant for ground-mounted systems. It’s angularlike many other types of racks out there, but comes with integratedback rails, Pickering said. Applied’s panels could be shippedpre-assembled with the back rails, which are bolted into steel strips.The steel would be a standard, construction-grade variety that is easyto find, Pickering added.
It’s a reference design that could be modified to satisfy local codes and soil conditions.
How much savings could the design yield? Pickering said the companyis still working on figuring that out. Over the next six months,Applied expects to see large projects being installed that make use ofthe new mounting system. Those installations will then provide someempirical data.
Pickering also declined to disclose manufacturing costs for the mounting structure.
Photo of a mounting system design by Applied Materials.