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Solar Production Technology
Enough Glass for Scores of Gigawatts
Glass is an indispensable raw material for the solar industry. For some time it seemed as though the powerfully expanding industry would not be able to continuously cover its material requirements; only a few corporations were covering the growing demand. Now, however, new producers are taking over the market—and alleviating the tension.
Photo gallery to the topic Gigawatts
Old television glass plant:show photos
In its new factory, Glasmanafaktur Brandenburg can produce 300 tons of textured sheet glass per day.
(Source: Interfloat Corporation)
Quality control:show photos
Workers at Glasmanafaktur Brandenburg inspect the surface of the solar glass.
(Source: Interfloat Corporation)
Sensitive wares:show photos
In Jena, Schott manufactures solar glass for its thin-film production.
After processing:show photos
At Schott, laser textures are inspected with a magnifying glass. Since there is no rear contact yet, it glows orange on the inspection table.
New technologies:show photos
Schott manufactures absorber tubes of special glass in Spain. These are key components for solar-thermal power plants.
Discreet power generators:show photos
The solar system integrated into the glass roof of the main railway station in Berlin represent the forward-looking interplay of photovoltaic and glass.
Unbreakable, hail- and snow-proof, and of course as transparent to sunlight as possible—these are the critical criteria for solar glass. More than 400,000 tons were made into solar modules last year.
"We get our glass from our partner, Saint Gobain," states a spokesman for Avancis GmbH & Co. KG. Based in the Saxon city of Torgau, very near to one of Saint Gobain's glass factories, Avancis produces thin-film solar modules on the basis of copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS). Since October 2008, the first factory produces with an annual capacity of 20 megawatts (MW). Avancis is a joint venture of two global concerns, both of which bring crucial know-how to the table: Shell has years of production experience from its CIGS factory with three MW of manufacturing capacity in Camarillo, California, while Saint Gobain has an impressive amount of expertise in the manufacture and coating of glass.
Developed in the Avancis Research Centre in Munich, these CIGS thin-film solar modules have an efficiency factor of 11 percent. Their size comes from glass production: The largest panes of float glass—the so-called jumbos—are six metres long and 3.2 metres wide. To prepare them for solar module production, they are divided once width-wise and nine times length-wise. This ensures minimal waste. Including the frame, a final module is 1595 by 686 millimetres.
Plenty of New Capacity in East Germany
Glass is enormously important for the solar industry. The sheet glass industry, however, was controlled by a handful of large corporations for quite some time. That is now history, for an increasing number of companies have discovered this lucrative market niche. A large number of glass producers have established themselves in the past few years in close vicinity to the East German solar module manufacturers. GMB Glasmanufaktur Brandenburg GmbH, for example—a subsidiary of the Interfloat Corporation from Mauren, Lichtenstein—operates a solar glass factory in Tschernitz in der Niederlausitz with a daily production capacity of 300 tons of textured sheet glass. Samsung produced moulded glass forms for television tubes at this location until 2007. GMB's solar glass factory began production in August 2008. They intend to double capacity if the demand calls for it.
Euroglas, an association of five independent medium-sized glass processors, produces 550 tons of float glass daily in its parent plant in Haldensleben near Magdeburg, and more than 700 tons per day in a second plant in nearby Osterweddingen. Euroglas also plans to open a glass finishing plant shortly that would coat front glass with an ultra-thin layer of translucent, conductive oxide (TCO) for the production of thin-film modules, reports Marketing Director Jan Pasemann. This coating acts as a light-catcher and as an electrode to accumulate the current generated in the module. The low-iron white glass needed by the solar industry will have even more commercial relevance for Euroglas in the future. The company is already planning two additional major projects. For one, a further float glass plant with a glass melting tank and two lines will be set up. With this, the company plans to increase its production of so-called extra-white low-iron float glass for the solar industry by more than tenfold. In addition, the parent plant in Haldensleben will receive a cast glass line for solar glass applications.
In Osterweddingen near Magdeburg, F Glass GmbH is currently investing 190 million euros in the establishment of a factory for the production of float glass. The company is a joint venture under the aegis of the Scheuten Group, an internationally leading supplier of complete solutions for glass and solar energy systems with headquarters in the Dutch city of Venlo. In addition, Interpane Glas Industrie AG in Lauenförde, owner of one of Europe's largest float tanks, in Seingbouse, France, holds 49 percent.
"More and more glass in needed due to Scheuten's enormous growth in both their glass and solar divisions," states Scheuten CEO Léon Giesen. "In order to realise our ambitions for the coming year, we must increase our production capacity for basis glass." The new plant is slated to begin production in August 2009 with a capacity of 700 tons of sheet glass daily. In addition to standard sheet glass, the plant will also manufacture white glass.
No Gigantic Plant After All
Two further solar glass projects in East Germany have certainly bitten the dust meanwhile. Solarglas AG in Munich had announced that it intended to build a factory with a capacity of 400 tons of cast glass daily for the solar industry in Forst, Brandenburg. A portion of this glass was to be coated with TCO directly in the neighbourhood at Precision Coating GmbH. Both companies belonged to the corporate network of the Solartec Group that filed for bankruptcy last year. So far the glass plant existed only on paper, while the Precision Coating production hall has been resting as a skeleton since October 2008.
Vetro Solar AS in Kristiansand planned to erect the world's largest solar glass plant for 400 million euros in the Mid-German "Solar Valley". The Norwegian company created furore with the announcement of their intention to build a gigantic sheet glass plant in Thalheim, Sachsen-Anhalt, very near the cell manufacturer Q-Cells AG. Buildings that stretch across 15 hectares, two float glass lines and a line for the production of textured or specially treated glass, fed by two separate melting tanks with a capacity of 650 tons per day each—all of this can be experienced on the website as an impressive animation. In a second, similarly dimensioned building complex, finishing facilities were to be installed, so that products could be hardened, cut to order or coated according to customers' wishes. "The capacity corresponds to solar modules with a power production capacity of two to three gigawatts," explains Managing Director Anders Gaudestad. The problem: Thus far, Vetro Solar apparently exists solely as a one-man operation with a website and a business plan. And it's likely to stay that way—finding financiers for a project of this magnitude in the current market situation seems less than probable.