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Roger Little, Founder and CEO of Spire Corporation, on multi-junction solar cells and the future of the solar market

Roger Little
Roger Little

Roger G. Little founded Spire Corporation in 1969 as a small research and development company.  Since then, he has guided the commercialization of Spire’s technology and directed Spire’s growth from a government research and development operation to a diversified solar energy company. Spire is now a leading supplier of photovoltaic module manufacturing equipment and turnkey production lines with more than 190 customers in 96 countries worldwide.

Mr. Little has served on many committees and advisory boards related to innovative research, transfer and commercialization of technology, worldwide growth of the photovoltaic industry, and development of sound renewable energy policies. He has testified before Congress on these subjects on numerous occasions. As recognition for his contributions, Mr. Little has been honored with many awards. 

Mr. Little received his B.A. in Physics from Colgate University in 1962 and his M.Sc. in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964. He is the author of more than 40 technical papers and has been granted over 20 patents on equipment and processes related to photovoltaics.


Solar Server: Congratulations on Spire's achievement of a 42.3% efficient multi-junction PV cell. Can you talk about Spire's work with multi-junction cells, and what you see for the future of this technology?

Roger Little: It is quite an achievement to get to the world record and I give credit to our solar cell guys for having done that. We have at Spire a couple of different operating divisions in the solar field. One is our capital equipment operations, which we sell individual pieces of equipment, and we also sell turnkey factories, mostly to make modules, and the second part of our business is PV systems, where we compete for systems in the open market. We try to use modules that are fabricated by our turnkey factory customers, so we don't make modules ourselves. And the third area is the semiconductor fabrication area where we have our solar cell technology, and that is the group, called Spire Semi, that developed that cell.

That operation is a relatively small operation, concentrating but also focusing on compound semiconductor technology, but they also represent our solar cell technology for silicon. They have developed high-efficiency silicon processing as well as gallium arsenide. We draw on them to support our turnkey solar cell lines, silicon solar cell lines. That is how they fit into the company. They are very good with gallium arsenide and triple-junction cells and we are trying to get them to be a supplier of those cells to the concentrator systems people, like Amonix and SolFocus, as a supplier competing with SpectraLabs and Emcore. That is where we are headed.

As far as the entire concentrated solar cell industry is concerned, we have a ways to go to show first of all that it is cost-competitive versus, say, low-cost Chinese modules, and we also have to show that it does have the ability to go 20 years in the field. But we think there is a future there, there are particular applications, particular regions of the world where concentrator PV systems have advantages, so we expect as time goes on that it will be a relatively small compared to say the flat plate world but it will be an important one and we want to participate in it.


Solar Server: Thank you. The second question: market analysts have made various projections about the future of the solar market, including those who say that in 2011 the market is going to slow down due to cuts in Germany's feed-in tariff. How do you think these trends will affect PV manufacturing, and what do you see in 2011 and beyond for the global manufacturing industry?

Roger Little: The market itself, if you read the market projects that are being published, would indicate that globally the market will have doubled in the year 2010. Last year, the market being on the order of seven or eight GW, this year market projections put it up at around 15GW and next year, we are not expecting a doubling of the market worldwide, but we expecting that it will be at least a 25% rate of growth. Which is serious growth with a market as large as it is right now. In terms of what we expect as a supplier of manufacturing equipment, we are experiencing now a tremendous amount of demand for scaling up and mostly in the far East. It is likely in our estimation, at least early next year, there will be an oversupply of crystalline silicon modules. We see an oversupply in the beginning of the year, but then the market absorbing that and continuing to grow.


U.S. producers competing with low-cost imports from China

We recognize at least in the U.S. that it will be tough to compete with the low-cost imports from China. So there is a lot of activity going on in thin-films, especially cadmium telluride, as well as competition coming from CIGS. We are participating in that ourselves, as we provide the equipment to take that from a substrate and turn that into a module. We see that as an area for growth for manufacturing in 2011, as these companies as these companies launch products that can compete in some fashion with the low-cost imports.

The market will grow next year, new capacity will be added and it will be less than this year, however we expect that thin-films will come on very strongly. In terms of concentrator technology, we expect to see more of the players in that technology going out and putting systems in.


Solar Server: At Intersolar 2010 North America, you introduced the concept of large-area PV modules. Do you see the PV manufacturing industry moving in this direction? Do you think that this move to large-area modules could allow crystalline silicon to capture market share from thin-film modules among utility-scale installations, or will thin-films remain dominant regardless?

Roger Little: We do see more and more interest in larger modules. A number of manufacturers are making modules of 400 watts and even bigger. SunPower has a system that they sell which is called the Oasis system. We see a trend moving towards larger modules. Our analysis is going all the way towards kilowatt modules. When you do that, you start to show considerable savings. You do save a considerable amount of money in the field installing these modules, particularly through the installation, less interconnect wires, also because it is so difficult to compete with the imports. We feel that manufacturers in the U.S. building bigger modules like that will have an advantage.

It gives domestic manufacturers and opportunity to gain market share in this specialty market. It is more than a niche, because we are driving these modules towards solar farms. As to the question of whether this will help crystalline silicon in the utility-scale market, definitely larger modules will allow for a competitive edge.


Solar Server: Spire appears to have a foothold in all of the major solar photovoltaic technologies, producing crystalline solar and thin-film manufacturing equipment, and developing triple-junction CPV cells. Can you talk to me about what that is like as a company? Can you comment on any industry trends that you see coming, particularly regarding relative growth of specific technologies?

Roger Little: Spire has been in the solar business a very long time. We got in in the energy crisis of the late 1970's. Because we got in so early, we began to become involved in many different aspects of solar technology. Early on, we did a whole lot of research and development with the Department of Energy (DOE), so we are always creating and going with different technologies. We have done perhaps $100 million of research and development contracts supported by the DOE covering the areas of the photovoltaic technology that we are now in. So it gave us a broad technical base. We have always had a very entrepreneurial environment where we assign product lines responsibilities to different people so that they can aggressively pursue their particular thing, without being diluted by other activities in the company. In the CPV cell area, we have an individual who lives and dies by different CPV applications. So that is how we got to where we are.

Currently, our biggest line of business is in the capital equipment area. We originally started by making modules many years ago. We actually made 16% efficient crystalline silicon modules as early as 1985 if you can believe that, and that is still pretty good by today's standards. But we dropped out of that and moved into making the equipment to make them when a number of the major players entered the field, namely oil companies. At one point there were nine oil companies in this business. So we ended up making equipment, we continued to make equipment, we continue to advance equipment, and we have now sold equipment all over the world, we are in 53 different countries, 150 or more manufacturing lines with our capital equipment for making PV modules.

But we have also been very much involved, as we went out of making silicon solar cells, high-efficiency ones, we were associated with the space program, which put us in the gallium arsenide field. So we continued to have a gallium arsenide initiative here at Spire. We've been doing gallium arsenide for a range of different products, like laser diodes, LEDs for 25 years or more. So that continues to persist. So all of these areas that we are in, we have had a long association with, and we have a deep technical base.

Going forward commercially, is a little different story. We like to keep an eye on these things, and we like to pursue them and see if they can become successful commercially, but currently it is capital equipment and the next emerging area is photovoltaic systems for us. We have been in the systems business for maybe 15 years, but we have put more and more emphasis there as the stimulus funds from Washington have promoted photovoltaic systems. So that is perhaps our fastest growing area right now and next year we are expecting it to be a significant contributor to our revenues.

We continue to pursue R&D, we have great hopes for this concentrator cell and we are pulling for concentrator solar cell manufacturers being able to push their way into the market, but our bread and butter is still capital equipment for crystalline silicon module lines, and back ends for thin-film lines. And that is kind of what it is like here. We have a lot of things going on, it is an exciting place, people love to work here, it is very creative, it is very innovative, we let people run with our products when they fit within our overall direction of photovoltaics and solar energy.


Solar Server: So is there anything we didn't cover here that you would like to share with our readers?

Roger Little: We have been in this business a long time and we have said many years ago that there is no stopping photovoltaics. It will grow, it will continue to grow, and we will have oscillations in the growth rate and in the marketplace, but there really is no stopping it. It is going to be a bigger and bigger industry. It has been the fastest growing industry in the world for the last ten years and I don't see that slowing down at all in the future.