By Michael Kanellos
What makes Suntech's (NYSE:STP) high efficiency/low cost Pluto panel tick? The contacts.
The Pluto panels are made with copper, rather than silver paste, contacts, said Steve Chan, Chief Strategy Officer for the company during a brief meeting today. Copper costs less than silver so that drives down the price. Just as important, the contacts also have a high aspect ratio and are more vertical than horizontal. That increases the active surface area of the panel, which in turn allows Suntech to improve the efficiency.
Monocrystalline Pluto cells off the line are achieving close to 19 percent efficiency while multicrystalline cells are achieving just over 17 percent, according to company literature. In labs, a Pluto cell has achieved an efficiency of approximately 25 percent. Those kind of numbers, potentially, will let Suntech compete more directly against SunPower (SPWRA).
In some ways, the panels sound similar to the strategy being followed by MIT spin-out 1366 Technologies. 1366 has also replaced copper with silver. It's an interesting idea and seems easier to pull off than adding new layers to trap more light.
The difference, of course, is that 1366 is a start-up. Earlier this year, it had to freeze plans for a factory because it couldn't raise $50 million. Suntech has a gigawatt of capacity and won't even use it all this year. Thus, the odds remain far greater than Suntech will establish this idea in the market quicker. The company already has capacity to make 30 megawatts of Pluto cells a year and will expand to 100 megawatts.
Other notes from Steve:
Suntech will begin to tweak its panels to better fit the commercial and residential markets. "We're looking at optimizing at both ends. We want to focus a bit better. We've been working on it all year," he said.