Abound’s Upgrade Draws Fire

Abound Solar automated production line (Abound photo)
Abound Solar automated production line (Abound photo)

Back in April 2011, General Electric’s PrimeStar subsidiary in Arvada, Colo., announced that it had achieved 12.8 percent efficiency for its cadmium-telluride modules. In October, in a press conference, solar program director Danielle Merfeld said that GE’s next generation of CdTe modules, slated for production this year in Aurora, Colo., would function at 14 percent efficiency – and reduce installation costs with a larger, lighter form factor.

This put Colorado’s other pioneer CdTe manufacturer in a bind. Abound Solar, in Longmont, was completing another of its highly-automated production lines. They were shipping modules with a rated efficiency of 10.5 percent, and weren’t going to be able to compete with the new giant neighbor.

Abound did, however, have a prototype ready, rated by NREL at 12.2 percent efficiency, for a peak output of 82.8 watts. Because mass production permits fast, repetitive testing, the company expected that in converting the production line to the new model, they could push the efficiency a bit higher, near 13 percent, and sell an 85-watt module. That could put them back in the commercial game this year.

The problem with a highly-automated production line, however, is that switching over to a new product requires more than retraining workers. It means shutting down for retooling, reprogramming, trial runs and QA testing (for background see the SOLAR TODAY interview with Abound’s process engineering manager Tim Barry). It means a lot of work for production engineers, while production workers stand idle.

At the end of February, Abound sent out this press release:

Abound Solar, a leading manufacturer of thin-film cadmium telluride photovoltaic modules, today announced that the company will cease production of its first-generation solar module in order to accelerate the manufacturing process and equipment changes needed for the production launch of its next generation high-efficiency module.

Abound Solar’s new high efficiency “AB2” 85 watt module represents a 12.5 percent solar efficiency as verified by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL). Several-hundred AB2 modules were produced in early January 2012 on commercial production equipment.

The suspension of first generation module production will result in the temporary reduction of approximately 180 permanent jobs from its Colorado facilities. Once manufacturing equipment has been modified and performance tested, Abound Solar expects to resume mass production with a 12.5-13 percent efficiency module by the end of 2012.

Naturally, local and national news media reported the layoff in ominous terms. The Forbes website ran the headline “Abound, Recipient of $400 million federal loan guarantee, halts production.” ABC’s web report was headlined “Abound Solar Got $400M Fed Loan Despite Low Rating.”

Inevitably, the Abound retooling process will be unfairly compared to the Solyndra bankruptcy. The lesson for the industry: Plan your technology upgrades very, very carefully.

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