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Interview with Ashu Misra, Ascent Solar

Ascent Solar (www.ascentsolar.com), a manufacturer and developer of thin film photovoltaic devices, opened up a new headquarters and large scale manufacturing plant in Thornton, Colorado (a suburb of Denver) yesterday, and we had the opportunity to talk with Ashu Misra, Senior VP of Operations for the firm, about the company's technology and the new plant.

First, for those not familiar with Ascent, can you tell us where you fit into the photovoltaic industry?

Ashu Misra: We belong to the thin film photovoltaic market. There are three different universes in that market: amorphous silicon from companies such as Unisolar or Energy Conversion Devices, Cadmium Telluride, from companies like First Solar, and CIGS (Copper Indium Gallium Selenide) where we belong with companies like Global Solar, Nanosolar and Miasole. Within CIGS, you have people who are putting the thin-film on a flexible or glass substrate, companies like Nanosolar or Miasole put CIGS on flexible substrate and on glass, you have Honda and Wurth Solar. We belong to the flexible part of CIGS, where people are either putting it on metal, or on a polymeric--or plastic--substrate. We're the only ones putting it on a polymeric or plastic substrate. The advantage you have by putting it on a polymeric substrate, is you can do monolithic integration. If you've seen what First Solar does, they've basically done monolithic integration on glass, making things on the module level. We're doing exactly the same thing, but on plastic. Our competition, like NanoSolar and MiaSole, make things on metal foils (film), but they come back and have to cut them into cells, string the cells together and then lay them on glass to make a module. It's a big difference. Our process gives us two very unique advantages. It gives us both the thin film advantage, and roll-to-roll manufacturing on the front end, and monolithic integration to create modules on the back end, which automates the process from a cost perspective. We believe our technology platform comes out as the most easily scalable, and most cost effective to manufacture.

Speaking of cost advantages, what is the cost advantage of your technology over a typical, multicrystalline solar panel?

Ashu Misra: Just like any thin film process, it's all based on assumptions and cost modeling. None of us are in high volume yet, especially in the CIGS space. First Solar is currently hitting $1 a watt in manufacturing, and we think by going roll-to-roll, CIGS, with higher efficiency than their Cadmium Telluride process, we'll hit a $1 a watt goal very easily in high volume production.

How far along to getting to market are you?

Ashu Misra: Our history goes back more than 20 years in CIGS. We've got a core group who were probably one of the earlier pioneers in the CIGS space with roll-to-roll manufacturing. There were a couple of other groups, at Siemens or Arco Solar, but they were working on glass substrate. Our group ended up at ITN Energy Systems in 1994 under leadership of Dr. Mohan Misra to commercialize CIGS on flexible substrate. In 1996, ITN spun out Global Solar, which is today in Tucson, Arizona. They're the only company in production on CIGS on metal foil using roll-to-roll manufacturing. ITN continued to work on the technology to perfect it on polymetric or plastic substrate, and in 2005, ITN spun out Ascent Solar. We've spent more than $60M in R&D on the technology, funded by us internally and government agencies contracts like DOE, DOD, and NASA. In 2005, Ascent Solar's goal was to set up our first manufacturing line, to demonstrate roll to roll manufacturing on plastic susbtrate. Ascent went to the public markets in 2006, and raised approximately $16M dollars, and by the end of 2008 we put together our first generation line, a pilot line. It has a rated capacity of 1.5 MW, and as of last week, went into regular production. Since March of 2007, Ascent has been fortunate in raising additional capital, and decided to begin construction of our first high volume manufacturing plant. This high volume plant is currently rated for 30 MW. In May of last year, 2008, we did a follow on secondary offering, giving the company enough capital to fund its construction.

That's the plant here in Thornton, right? What kind of expansion are you doing ?

Ashu Misra: The equipment has started to arrive, and we will be getting most of our equipment between now and the end of the year, a few pieces are schedule for early 2010 delivery. Our lines are very modular, and it's not a fully integrated line. We've got multiples of several tools, which makes it very easy for us to do a gradual scale up. Our scale up is not digital, but gradual, in increments of 5 MW.

I understand you'll be hiring and expanding your staffing?

Ashu Misra: This is a fully dedicated, 30MW plant, plus it will be our new world headquarters. We will be moving Genral Administration and marketing to the facility, and will fully staff our front office and the 30MW plant. We hope to hire 180-200 people between now and the end of next year, when we'll be running full scale, 3-shifts around the clock.

What kinds of people are you hiring there?

Ashu Misra: We have manufacturing techs, process techs, manufacturing engineers, test engineers, quality control, quality assurance, and some administrative aspects to support the 30MW production. We're looking for a highly skilled workforce--our minimum is at least an associate degree, or at least 6-8 years of high volume technology manufacturing.

Is there a customer in mind who will be using the output of the plant?

Ashu Misra: How we work is our technology is an enabling technology. We are trying to focus on the BIPV (Building Integrated Photovoltaic) market right now. We work with our customers on a product development plan, because those products are not on the market yet. Our only competition today is Unisolar, and they currently offer only one product, a big flexible laminate. What we are trying to do, is work with various customers who are developing various products and applications for BIPV and EIPV (electronics integrated PV) markets. We start with a product development plan, and currently we have between 8 and 9 potential customers with a product development plan in place. That will lead to an LOI, and eventually a purchase order. A lot of this work started almost a year ago.

Let's talk about the industry a bit, there's been some worries lately that solar companies are seeing a slowdown as the economy. What's your opinion on how things look right now?

Ashu Misra: The solar industry is seeing a direct impact from the banking sector meltdown. If you look at the solar industry, it's very, very dependent on credit market to finance the end product sale. Today, it doesn't matter if it's a commercial or a residential install, no one puts a system in at their own expense. They always want to have someone finance it. Because of the tight credit market, it's hurting the solar industry as a whole. There is a silver lining, however, because as part of the new stimulus bill, the government is very aggressive in promoting the industry. One of the things in the stimulus plan put out by the DOE, is a loan guarantee program. The goal of that program, is to give out credit worth $60 to $80 billion dollars, to fund solar projects and any clean and green projects. That gives guarantees from the federal government for commercial lending, and will be a big accelerator in the U.S. I think it may take 4-6 months for the government systems to get into place, but I'm pretty optimistic that come Q3 or at least the fourth quarter, there is a good possibility of a turnaround, especially in the U.S. In my personal opinion, that's a huge amount of money compared to where we were in 2008. On top of that, the 30 percent tax incentive from the Federal government also makes a huge difference, especially with residential limits gone, bringing solar power system costs down by 30 percent right away. Personally, I'm very bullish on the U.S. market starting by the end of the year.

Finally, it seems there are lots of solar technology firms in Colorado, why do you think that is?

Ashu Misra: We have lots of sun--more sun than California, although not many people know that, we actually get more sunny days than California. Plus, we have lots of land, and rooftops both commercial and residential which is what you need for solar system installation. Plus, we've got a very, very friendly government and local utility. Our current administration, under Governor Bill Ritter, has been pushing really hard for new energy companies to help grow the Colorado economy. Personally, I think he's taking this not only to the state level, but looking to bring it out at even to the national level. This is one of the reasons why the current administration, under President Obama, came here to sign the stimulus bill last month and one of the key themes for his speech was solar. Colorado has always been a center of high-tech innovation, and we also happen to have NREL, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, one of the largest labs under Department of Energy in the Denver/Metro area. We are also blessed with some very good schools with a focus on renewable energy, like CU Boulder and Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Overall, I think Colorado has every ingredient you need to be high tech, and leader in clean and green technology companies.