Helios Solar Panels, American Manufacturing at its Best

Every once in awhile an American solar panel success story boils to the surface and really gets our attention. One of those stories, Helios Solar Works, is a relatively new contributor to the “Made in the USA” trend in photovoltaic manufacturing. “We are tired of seeing manufacturing go overseas,” said CEO Steve Ostrenga. “We want to make a product that will change the world, and do it in the US.”

The company manufactures its high-efficiency monocrystalline solar panels in the heart of a city better known for “beer and brats” than renewable energy, Milwaukee, WI. Helios’ 40,000 sq ft headquarters, inside a LEED-certified building constructed a few years ago as part of a redevelopment project in the old stockyards district, features a state-of-the-art automated production line.

Helios USA moved quickly from the close of financing in April 2010 to the manufacture of its first certified solar panel in early February 2011 10 months from money in to module out. The company has two product offerings so far: its 25-year warranteed, fully certified 60- and 72-cell monocrystalline-silicon panels (240-255Wp and 280-305Wp, respectively), with a 96-cell, 410Wp panel coming to market within 60 days, according to GM Brent Brucker.

The current factory capacity sits at 40MW, with plans to scale it to 80MW and then 120MW over the next 12 months, according to COO John Kivlin, a long-time Motorola hand. He believes the building could accommodate up to 200MW of production capability with some “goosing”; Helios is already actively investigating possible sites in the southeast and southwest US for a future production facility.

The first and second shifts at the plant are up and running after going through more than two months of training, Brucker said, with the hiring of the third shift planned within the next two months. About a third of the 30-some employees are US military veterans (some of whom are disabled), a point of pride for CEO Steve Ostrenga, who also spoke highly of the quality of the workforce in Milwaukee, an area hard hit by cutbacks in the automotive, electronics, and power control industries.

The chief exec cited the company’s participation in the “Heliene Alliance” a strategic confederation of several solar players in Canada, France, Spain, and the US as a major reason for the company’s rapid initial ramp-up. Although most of the other firms are part of the Heliene Energy family, Helios Solar Works remains independent while benefitting from the close cooperative interaction of the group.

Calling the alliance a “gentlemen’s agreement,” the former US Peace Corps volunteer and US Army Reserve vet turned solar entrepreneur explained that the companies have joined forces and pooled their resources to buy components and materials, ship spare parts to each other, educate their employees (Helios’ first shift trained in sister facilities in Spain and Ontario, Canada), test and measure their products, bid on projects together, and research and develop next-generation technologies. The partnership represents a compelling alternative path to reducing costs through collective economies of scale.

On the manufacturing side, perhaps the most important alliance collaborator has been Spanish module equipment supplier SAP Solar, which designed and built the tools and layout for Helios’ line. Kivlin gave a large part of the credit for the quick ramp to the systems provider’s platform-based methodology, and believes that the next round of production expansion should take only six months.

Ostrenga added that SAP’s soldering approach was a particular differentiator, with its lower spoilage rates and faster throughput than competitive solutions. He also listed another advantage of partnering with a company like the Badalona, Spain, concern and its proven turnkey production scheme: a constant upgrading of equipment, including a brand-new-to-market soldering tool that the Midwestern modco has just bought.

Another benefit of the alliance mentioned by the CEO is the deep understanding of, and nimble response to, their respective local and regional markets that each member brings to the family table. This homegrown flavor extends to how the companies seek out supply-chain vendor companies in their own specific global neck of the woods as much as possible.

On the testing side, the alliance’s four modcos work in concert, Ostrenga explained, making strategic choices together on what components to modify or change in their panels. This incremental approach to recertification, done in concert with Intertek, keeps the process leaner, quicker and cheaper.

As for Helios’ own supply chain (albeit one in a constant state of evaluation), Ostrenga and Kivlin told me that the company sources its high-efficiency mono c-Si cells from a trio of reputable, internationally diverse manufacturers: US-based Suniva, Taiwanese market leader Motech, and German stalwart Bosch. The high-transmission glass comes from Saint-Gobain and AGC (plus a third, Midwest US-based outfit soon on board), CPP and Isovoltaic provide the solar panel backsheet materials, and the EVA rolls out from STR and Flexcon.

Solar Panel efficiencies are just below 16%, according to Kivlin, reaching >15.7% on the 72-cell model. He expects that number to get north of 16 within 60 days, mainly through a module design tweak that will remove about 25mm of wasted space around the frame edge on the sunny side of the panel.

Guaranteeing on-time delivery of the contracted module wattage, Helios has already shipped megawatts to a growing number of high-efficiency solar-hungry projects. These include 1MW as part of a 5MW UK system developed by German firm Sunstroom (the other 4MW of panels came from Heliene Spain) as well as thousands of panels to US military bases such as Forts Drum and Polk and 2MW to an unnamed US Navy installation in San Diego (in case you hadn’t guessed, the company’s products qualify under all “Buy America” provisions).

While production output may be capacity constrained for the moment Kivlin said they’re sold out for the next few months these new breed of Milwaukee’s finest are anything but enthusiasm and national pride constrained.

Source: PV Tech