Suntech’s Pluto Technology Really Starting to Look Like A Dog $STP

Suntech Power Holdings said Thursday it has run into difficulties making its high-efficiency Pluto solar cells, raising thepossibility of a delay in this next-generation technology.

The Chinese solar giant said the problems arose in rampingmanufacturing beyond its present monthly pace of 4 MW. As a result, thecompany said it decided to maintain this relatively modest productionlevel — probably two factory lines — until it works out the technicalkinks.

The move is a blow for Suntech as it begins to transition to this key technology in hopes of catching up with more efficient solardevelopers, particularly mass-market efficiency leader SunPower. It also could be a setback to Suntech’s hope of pushing Pluto beyond itspresent 19 percent average efficiency to a 20-percent target.

Rumors have percolated over the last two weeks about Pluto problems.One installer told Greentech Media recently that Suntech told them not to expect delivery of Pluto panels until the third quarter or so.Another said Pluto panels have been discussed since late 2007, but have not yet been seen.

Suntech pulled back on production goals in 2008 due to the economiccollapse, but in 2009 and early 2010, the company remained somewhat optimistic. InMarch, execs said capacity in Suntech’s plant for Pluto modules would rise to 450 megawatts by the end of the year. Suntech atthe time said it would produce around 30 megawatts by the end of thefirst half, with 120 to 150 megawatts slated to be produced in thesecond half.

On a first-quarter conference call with analysts today, Suntech Chief Technology Officer Stuart Wenham described the hang-ups as "smallglitches" of the sort that are common when transferring a new technology to large-scale module production.

"In the course of ramping Pluto production to levels well above thecurrent 4 MW a month, we have identified process control challenges tomodule production," Wenham said. He added: "We have gained a great dealof experience since we began producing commercial quantities of Plutocells."

Suntech says it remains pleased with the cell’s performance andclaims nothing is wrong with the Pluto design. Yet Pluto’s average cellefficiency remains at 19 percent, with the best yielding cells reaching19.5 percent. Both are well above the market average of 17.5 percent,but the company first achieved 19 percent efficiency as far back asearly 2009.

Suntech is "fully confident Pluto will become our core product andthe industry benchmark for high-performance and cost-effective solarpanels," Wenham says.

The Pluto design is based on the PERL (passivated emitter with rearlocally diffused) technology developed at Australia’s University of NewSouth Wales, where efficiencies of 25 percent have been achieved in thelaboratory. It has low reflectivity to capture more sunlight and thinner metal lines to reduce shading.

While the technology remains promising, Suntech said in adifficult-to-interpret announcement that it recently began a new solarresearch initiative with the University of New South Wales and SilexSolar to improve the efficiency and cost of cells. The research received a $5 million grant from the Australian government. The company alsokicked off a collaborative effort with Swinburne University ofTechnology on nanoplasmonic cells. Suntech describes both efforts ascomplementary to its work with Pluto.

Because of its high efficiency, the Pluto panel commands a premiumprice in the market and customer demand appears to be high.  Yetproduction is far from the 450 MW Suntech plans for the middle of itsfiscal year. When the problems are resolved, the company promisesproduction will increase rapidly and engineers are reportedly convincedthey can meet the target.

On the conference call, Suntech said a weak Euro contributed to a14-percent fall in average product prices in its first quarter. Theprospect of continued weakness led its shares down 3 percent.

Suntech does 68 percent of its business in Europe.

Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.



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