Thanks in part to Elon Musk, the world’s biggest and most advanced solar panel factory could be built in the U.S. in the coming years.
The Silicon Valley entrepreneur, fresh off announcing an effort to spur growth in the electric auto industry by opening up access to hundreds of Tesla Motors patents, on Tuesday pushed the cleantech envelope even further, announcing a bid to massively expand the solar panel industry.
Musk, chair of the solar panel installation giant SolarCity, told reporters that in the coming years the company plans to build a solar panel factory in the U.S. that’s “an order of magnitude bigger than any of the plants that exist” anywhere in the world today.
SolarCity is responsible for about a quarter of America’s residential solar panel installations every month — three times as much as its closest competitor. Its market dominance has been earned in part through its “zero-down” financing model. But that’s not enough. Musk says he worries that the company’s ongoing growth will be so rapid that it will start to encounter solar panel shortages, despite what now is an international glut of mostly Chinese-made panels.
So SolarCity is jumping into the development and manufacture of advanced solar panels through the acquisition for $200 million or more of Silicon Valley-based solar panel company Silevo, which has developed highly efficient rooftop photovoltaic cells. Using more efficient cells means fewer panels are needed for each rooftop, helping to push down the price of residential solar systems.
“If we don’t do this, we felt that there was risk of not being able to have the solar panels that we need to expand the business in the long term,” Musk said Tuesday during a call with reporters. “The rate at which solar panel technology is advancing — at least for the panels that are being made at large scale — it’s really not fast enough. We’re seeing high-volume production of relatively basic panels, but not high-volume production of advanced panels, so we think it’s important that the two be combined.”
In a blog post published Tuesday, SolarCity described its manufacturing ambitions:
We are in discussions with the state of New York to build the initial manufacturing plant, continuing a relationship developed by the Silevo team. At a targeted capacity greater than 1 GW within the next two years, it will be one of the single largest solar panel production plants in the world. This will be followed in subsequent years by one or more significantly larger plants at an order of magnitude greater annual production capacity.
Ultimately, Musk says, he wants to develop such advanced panels and manufacture them at such high volumes that fossil fuels simply cannot compete. “To be able to have solar power compete on an unsubsidized basis with fossil fuel energy coming from the grid, it’s critical that you have high efficiency solar panels,” he said.