By Elizabeth Marie Himchak
With a flip of a switch, Soitec powered up its production of solar panels at its U.S. headquarters in Rancho Bernardo.
The Dec. 19 opening ceremony drew clean technology industry professionals, politicians and business leaders who praised the France-based company for choosing California as its home and local government for helping to make San Diego County Soitec’s preferred location over Phoenix, the perceived frontrunner due to Soitec having a small facility there, according to Soitec vice president Clark Crawford.
“We are here thanks to the community,” said André-Jacques Auberton-Hervé, Soitec’s founder and CEO. He spoke of how five years ago the company only had 20 employees in a La Jolla office and now has 125 working at the plant at 16550 Via Esprillo in the Rancho Bernardo Industrial Park.
When the company is fully operational by next summer — expanding its two assembly lines to four — the company expects to have 450 employees working among four shifts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, according to Emmanuel Ferton, supply chain director in Soitec’s solar energy division.
The company is poised to become one of the top three manufacturers of solar modules in the United States, Soitec officials said.
The 176,000-square-foot manufacturing center on 14.8 acres of property previously owned by Sony represents a more than $150 million investment by Soitec, officials said. Soitec purchased the property in December 2011 and completely renovated it in time to start producing its concentrator photovoltaic (CPV) modules by October.
Now, the production line’s first phase at 140 megawatt-peak (MWp) is operational, which will reach 280 MWp capacity at full production next June, officials said.
The company produces CPV modules used for utility-scale projects — like San Diego Gas & Electric’s Sunrise Powerlink — to turn sunlight into electricity. Its product is made for and shipped to clients throughout the United States and the world.
“By producing high volumes of CPV modules at this facility, we are now able to help California meet its renewable energy goals and further support the U.S. market,” Auberton-Hervé said. “Soitec already manages six factories around the world, and this gives us strong expertise in industrial processes, manufacturing and quality systems.
“We have also installed CPV systems in 14 countries on four continents,” he said. “I am very pleased and honored that we can now offer the full benefits of this know-how in meeting U.S. needs.”
According to Auberton-Hervé, the Earth’s population of 7 billion is projected to reach 9.3 billion by 2050. “This will double the demand for energy in less than 40 years,” he told those at the ceremony. “Yet (carbon dioxide) emissions must be reduced by 50 percent to keep it at the level today.”
He added many parts of the world lack access to electricity and the areas with increasing demand are the United States, Middle East, China and India.
“New forms (of power) need to be developed for access and solar energy clearly is the answer to this need ... especially in sunny places of the world,” he said, showing a map indicating the Western United States, Australia and parts of Africa and Asia are well-suited for solar energy production.
“This is clearly the right choice at the right time,” he said, explaining how the modules concentrate sunlight through the use of high-efficiency cells, and the simple but durable materials and design allow for rapid installation, which Auberton-Hervé called a “key advantage.”
Congressman-elect Scott Peters, a CleanTech San Diego board member, spoke about how the region is leading the effort to utilize renewable energy sources like solar and wind.
Mayor Bob Filner praised the speed at which Soitec was able to become operational, saying he would like other such industries to be able to follow suit in what he called “Soitec time.”
Assemblyman Brian Maienschein thanked the company for creating hundreds of jobs here, which he said will have direct and indirect positive effects on the local economy.
“It’s phenomenal this was developed in such a short period of time,” said California Public Utilities Commissioner Timothy Simon. “San Diego is a wonderful community and creating a tremendous amount of innovation.”
Simon added, “This technology is so important to California’s (energy portfolio) and critical to California’s (energy) reliability.”
He called the plant’s opening “a great day for our state and our nation.”