BATAVIA – 1366 Technologies executive Brian Eller is convinced that the Massachusetts company’s new way of making silicon wafers can be a big part of the push to make solar energy competitive.
And the $700 million factory that the state is building for solar startup 1366 Technologies in Genesee County, potentially with as many as 1,000 jobs, will be a big part of that plan.
“The innovation is so special, it’s downright magical,” said Eller, 1366’s chief operating officer.
But 1366 Technologies is taking a cautious approach toward bringing that innovation to the market. The company was founded eight years ago and has methodically moved to develop the technology, based on research done by Ely Sachs, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and the company’s chief technology officer.
The company has raised $70 million in venture capital to fund its operations over the years. It built a $6 million pilot-scale factory in the Boston, Mass., suburbs to prove that the technology worked. It secured a $150 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy in September 2011 to build what ultimately will become its commercial-scale factory in the Town of Alabama, near Batavia. And months before breaking ground on the new factory, the company already has lined up commitments from solar panel producers to buy 60 percent of the factory’s output.
“Don’t rush and build a factory and then wait for the market to come to you,” Eller said in an interview Friday after discussing the company’s plans at the Genesee County Economic Development Agency’s annual meeting.
“We’re bringing a developed product to market in a steady process,” said Eller, who will be moving from suburban Boston to Western New York to oversee the plant’s construction. “We proved the technology before scaling commercially. That, too, is contrarian.”
1366 Technologies is developing methods that it believes will allow the company to produce silicon wafers – the basic ingredient of solar cells – at half the cost of traditional methods once its 130,000-square-foot factory begins operating next year.
Its process creates wafers directly from molten silicon, using a method that requires a single machine and greatly reduces the amount of waste created. It also uses just a third of the energy required by conventional techniques.
In contrast, those conventional methods of making silicon wafers melt the silicon into ingots, which then are cut into blocks and then sawed into thin wafers in a process that requires 12 different machines and can take the better part of a week, he said. Along the way, as much as half of the silicon is wasted.
“The path to true industry disruption has been plotted methodically,” Eller said.
The Genesee County factory will be the first tenant in the 1,250-acre Western New York Science and Technology Advanced Manufacturing Park, or WNY STAMP. The factory is expected to be developed in phases, with initial production expected to make enough wafers to produce 250 megawatts of solar-powered electricity a year. That phase of the project, which could produce 1 million wafers a week, is expected to cost $100 million.
If the market develops as 1366 Technologies executives hope, the plant eventually could be expanded to increase its capacity 12-fold, with the ability to produce enough wafers to make solar panels with 3 gigawatts of generating capacity annually.
To lure the company to Western New York, the state and Genesee County agreed to provide the company with $97 million in incentives, including low-cost hydropower, property tax breaks and a factory that will be built using state grant money and leased to the company for 10 years.
The company currently is working on environmental studies at the site and is moving to hire design and engineering firms for the project, Eller said. If all goes well, the company could break ground before the end of June, with the factory ramping up its production during the second half of next year, Eller said.
The company also is following the same approach as another solar energy industry company, SolarCity, in identifying potential suppliers for its Genesee County plant. The company is working with the GCEDC to collect information about potential suppliers and their qualifications through an