By Roy L Hales
A lighter, easier to install, solar module has just made its debut on the market. Giga Solar may be an early stage company, but they deserve our attention. I had an opportunity to ask Chief Business Development Officer Sicco Westra some questions:
Question: Tell me about how Giga Solar came into being? when? and what inspired Tom Hood to found it?
SW: Giga Solar was founded in July of 2011. Tom Hood’s motivation in founding Giga Solar was to develop innovative photovoltaic products that would increase the adoption of solar-generated electricity for all people around the world.
Question: How much lighter are Giga’s High Durability (D-Series) solar modules than the typical 260Watt, 60-cell glass solar module?
SW: A D262 module weighs 16lbs, which is more than 60% lighter than a typical glass module with an aluminum frame.
Question: How is Giga able to make their D-Series so much lighter?
SW: Our modules are frameless and don’t use any glass, which in a standard module represent about 80% of the weight. Instead of glass on the top (solar side) of the module, we use an innovative, lightweight composite on the bottom of the module to provide rigidity. On top, we are using a thin polymeric film that has an established, long lifetime in PV applications.
Question: Do you have figures for what this weight reduction translates into in terms of reduced transportation costs or installation time?
SW: As far as transportation is concerned, because our modules have a very low profile and are light, we can put about 3 times as many modules in a standard 40ft container, compared to traditional modules. Based on that, the shipping cost is cut to less than half.
The biggest savings are realized with the installation labor. For instance, for a residential rooftop installation, we estimate this to be about 0.35 to 0.40$/Wp out of a $0.50 -$0.55/Wp for a glass based module.
Question: I understand that Giga’s solar modules have not yet undergone IEC testing, but you intend to. When do you expect this to happen?
SW: It is our intent to have IEC certification within the next 6 months.
Question: How do you know that the D-Series are as durable and as long lasting as glass?
SW: We are using materials that have proven their lifetime in PV, wind turbine or other demanding applications such as automotive, aviation and boating.
Question: Most solar panels have toxic elements that could leech into the soil if they are thrown into a landfill after their lifespan is over. I do not have any figures to put this problem into perspective. Do you have an idea of the scale of this problem? how many solar panels are presently being recycled? or if there are similar problems with crystalline silicon solar cells?
SW: Most standard PV panels sold today pass the Toxicity Characteristics Leach Procedure (“TCLP”) test which is governed by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Passing the TCLP classifies PV panels as non-hazardous waste. All of the new materials introduced in Giga Solar’s lightweight composite module are non-toxic and environmentally neutral. This means that Giga Solar module materials can be either safely disposed of in landfills or recycled.
Question: I have heard some complaints about the weight of glass solar modules on roofs. Do you know if there are roofs that your D-series could be installed on that are not able to use traditional panels? Do you have any figures as to how many roofs this would apply to?
SW: Weight limitations of PV installations are usually an issue for commercial roofs. It is difficult to give you a precise answer on what percentage of commercial roofs would accept a Giga Solar module, but not a traditional module, because additional factors determine if a roof can accommodate a PV system or not. These factors include ballasting, wind load compliance and distribution of weight across roof support members. A lighter module gives the engineer more flexibility in designing a PV systems that is compatible with the specifics of a roof.
Question: You have sold some modules, do you have statistics for the total number installations using Giga’s panels? or the total number of panels sold? (A guesstimate of either figure will suffice)
SW: We announced the availability of our modules about one month ago and we are currently shipping pre-production units that our customers are testing for their specific application.
Question: Your design requires fewer roof penetrations, which means less potential problem areas. Do you have any figures, or guesstimates, for the number of homes that could use your modules but not the glass variety?
SW: For sloped residential installations, the number of roof penetrations is usually not a limiting factor, but in general, the fewer penetrations, the lower the chances of potential problems in the future. So it is more an argument of improving the quality of the installation.
Question: I understand there have been previous lightweight module companies, but they have not been able to compete with traditional panels. How do Giga’s modules compare to the traditional variety in terms of retail cost?
SW: Previous lightweight modules often used thin film technologies and suffered in output power due to the lower efficiency of thin film technologies. Earlier, rigid lightweight modules used expensive materials and/or assembly methods, which made them non-competitive in many applications. We have carefully selected our composite materials not only to satisfy the demanding mechanical and environmental requirements in PV applications, but also to have low cost.
Question: Can homeowners with traditional installations add Giga‘s modules to their configuration?
SW: Absolutely. The electrical characteristics of our modules are the same as those of traditional glass-based modules.
Question: Tell me a little about the applications for you High Mobility (Series M) modules. As I understand it they are made for special circumstances where ease of transport is the #1 issue.
SW: Our M-Series product are receiving a lot of interest from customers that intend to use our modules in mobile applications, such as power supplies for emergency relief units, military expeditionary usage and airborne applications.
Question: Though Giga has started manufacturing and is selling its product, you are still an early stage company that is raising capital for further expansion. What are your plans in this regard?
SW: We are currently pursuing seed funding but are also open to working with strategic partners.
(Image at top of page: Two Giga Solar 262Wp Modules with Integrated Mounting Structure on test roof)