Mission Solar Puts San Antonio on New Energy Map

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Brad Miles has been a busy vice president since moving to San Antonio in July 2013. Though he keeps one foot in Austin with his wife and family, during the week he lives with his other daughter in San Antonio and heads to work at Mission Solar Energy‘s solar manufacturing plant.

“I raised her in my house, now I get to be a tenant in hers,” he said.

Mission Solar Energy manufacturing plant at 8303 South New Braunfels Ave. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Mission Solar Energy manufacturing plant at 8303 South New Braunfels Ave. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Mission Solar, located at the dead end of South New Braunfels Avenue at Brooks City Base, began producing solar panels earlier this summer and is the first and only manufacturing company currently producing N-type solar cell and panel modules in Texas and the U.S. The plant’s grand opening ceremony will be held Monday. Local officials will welcome executives from OCI Solar Power, Mission Solar’s parent company, owned by Korean-based OCI Company.

Silicon – in a thin, wafer form – comes in one end of the 240,000 square foot newly-constructed building and comes out the other end transformed into 3.5′ x 6.5′ panels, ready to ship out to OCI Solar Power’s Alamo Solar Farm projects. OCI Solar Power contracted with CPS Energy to build seven Alamo Solar Farms. Three already are in commercial operation, and two are under construction in Converse and Uvalde. Alamo 3 in San Antonio will be the first Alamo project to feature locally made solar panels from Mission Solar.

Mission Solar Energy's  Executive Vice President of Manufacturing Operations Brad Miles. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Mission Solar Energy’s Executive Vice President of Manufacturing Operations Brad Miles. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Miles is one of 233 employees at the plant. That number will jump to 278 in December, he said, and to 400 by November 2015 as another assembly line – part robotic, part manual – comes online. Mission Solar will produce 100MW of panels a year until the second line begins operations, with plant capacity then reaching 200MW per year. Mission Solar will work through 2017 to fulfill OCI’s obligation to provide 400 MW to CPS Energy.

“To get a panel from us today, you have to stand in line,” Miles said.

What happens after 2017? That depends on demand.

“We’re designed, built and focused on the U.S. market,” Miles said. Panels beyond its obligation to CPS Energy will be sold through OCI Solar Power, but Mission Solar has its own marketing team as well.

Mission Solar would have a hard time competing with shipping costs of an overseas manufacturer, he added, but “we wouldn’t turn away an international customer.”

Inside the Plant

Miles’ job as executive vice president of manufacturing operations means he was here to get the plant up and running and he’ll be here to make sure it runs at full capacity without a hitch. From parking ticket policies to adjusting soldering tools, Miles wears many hats, “a jack of all trades, master of several.”

Silicon wafers are transformed into solar cells at Mission Solar Energy manufacturing plant. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Silicon wafers are transformed into solar cells at Mission Solar Energy manufacturing plant. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

He also wears a hair and beard net – as do all employees and visitors – in the large production rooms. With workers cloaked in plastic booties, gloves, and lab coats, the production line looks like something out of a James Bond film. Workers quietly move trays and push buttons in a seemingly random fashion to the untrained eye. But these aren’t movie extras, they’re specially-trained workers, most hired locally in San Antonio.

Trained by the equipment companies that installed the large, complicated machines, line employees include former Toyota, Maxim, and Caterpillar employees, as well as those new to the manufacturing field.

“We also use the Texas Workforce Commission to screen candidates for us as well as Alamo Colleges,” Miles said. “They’ll test them for a little bit of aptitude and comprehension … and we actually have a program with those two (entities) that they’ll take a set of employees, put them on a five-week program, put them through some coursework, some of our training, (and) some safety training. If they pass the course at the end, we guarantee we’ll hire them.”

But most of the training happens in-house.

“We bought a turn-key system … the companies brought the equipment, sold us (some) processes, (and) we paid them a fee for this technology and training,” Miles said. “They install, start it up, train all of our people, then stay with us for a period of time until we run it properly, then they leave and we’ll run it by ourselves.”

It’s a faster, more efficient way to start production, Miles said.

Blue and white coated-workers tap on keyboards and consult one another throughout the building.  Working in 12-hour shifts throughout the day, management wears white, line workers wear blue. The constant hum and whir of the processers and air conditioning provide a sustained white noise. It’s a strange combination of both quiet and loud. Air in the plant is circulated 16 times per minute and is kept at positive pressure to keep any particles grounded.

Solar cell wafers are automatically flipped over in the assembly line at Mission Solar Energy manufacturing plant. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Solar cell wafers are automatically flipped over in the assembly line at Mission Solar Energy manufacturing plant. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The process is similar to manufacturing computer (semi-conductor) chips, but simpler, Miles said. Previous to his work at Mission Solar, Miles worked for almost four years at Applied Materials in China.  While there, he oversaw the creation of four solar plants. Applied Materials has 14 plants worldwide. Before that, he spent 18 years with Motorola and saw its semiconductor production shift towards cell phones as the company spun off its semiconductor production to Freescale in Austin.

Mission Solar is his third solar company, ninth factory, and sixth solar factory. It was his son that brought up the switch from semiconductor work to solar.

“‘You gotta do more for the Earth,'” he remembers his son telling him. “So I looked into it and found that it’s very similar work.

“Solar brought me back to my home,” Miles added. “Even though I wan’t born in Texas, I’m an adopted Texan.”

Texas is not a leader in solar implementation, but the Sun Belt state is playing serious catch-up. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Texas ranks sixth in installed capacity. Texas has only recently ranked within the top 10 for solar anything, but city/utility incentives and business leaders are increasing their investment in solar.

“The cities are getting a clue – the sun hasn’t changed, the cities have,”Miles said.

So why Texas? Why San Antonio?

San Antonio’s New Energy Economy

An employee monitors performance at Mission Solar Energy manufacturing plant. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

An employee monitors performance at Mission Solar Energy manufacturing plant. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“OCI generally was looking for partners to expand into solar and it just so happened to be the same time CPS Energy was looking for a partner,” he said. “It was the leadership and proactive (policies) of CPS Energy” and their push for a greener energy economy. “They drove it, we’re here as a key result of their effort. We hope to stay with them for a very long time and continue past the seven Alamo projects.”

CPS Energy already has more than 130MW of solar power in commercial operation as part of San Antonio’s New Energy Economy, which aims to meet 20% of its electricity demand with renewable energy by 2020.

An agreement between CPS Energy and OCI Solar Power to construct a 400MW solar project will likely bump the entire state of Texas into the top five solar-producing states. According to a report released by the advocacy group Environment Texas, San Antonio ranks sixth for cities behind Honolulu, San Jose, Phoenix, San Diego, and Los Angeles.

“The City of San Antonio, CPS Energy and OCI Solar Power have come together and allowed us a launching pad – a way that we can put in capacity and have it already needed, hire the people, start shipping product and get paid,” Miles said. “It’d be very difficult to just come here and find investors (if we said), ‘We have no customers, we have no incentives from the city.'”

Will the solar market thrive without incentives or rebates?

“Over time, you run out of money – if the companies don’t make it competitive, then the market will drop off … so the onus is on Mission Solar Energy plus all the solar manufacturers in the U.S. to get the costs down so that you don’t need government help,” Miles said.

The Technology

Just five years ago, these N-type (negative-type) panels would have been too expensive to produce. The silicon requires a more complex and expensive refining process. The N-type technology and process has been around for decades, but advancements in those technologies and processes and an increased demand for solar efficiency has allowed Mission Solar to be able to affordably manufacture them now in San Antonio.

The panel assembly is more automated than the solar cell wafer line. Mission Solar Energy manufacturing plant. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The panel assembly is more automated than the solar cell wafer line at Mission Solar Energy manufacturing plant. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The more efficient N-type panels produce more power per square foot than the P-type (positive-type) and have a longer lifespan – that is, N-type will be more efficient for a longer time. A P-type 3.5′ x 6.5′ panel typically produces 290 watts compared to 320 watts from an N-type.

While there are some two-sided panels on the international market from companies like Germany-based BSolar, Mission Solar has partnered with UTSA and even competitors to begin testing their own.

“We are making that now, but we’re blocking the backside because we want to qualify that with a third-party engineering service to make sure that we get the most money we can for our product,” Miles said. “Since we’re one of the first few that are doing the two-sided, we want a fair test for the industry.”

For about six months, they’ll be testing for best mounting practices: what angles to place double-sided panels at and how different ground materials – gravel, asphalt, grass, cement, mirror – effect energy returns.

“Then all we have to do is change a couple of steps” in the manufacturing process, basically skip putting a backing on the panel, and they’ll be good to go. Miles estimates that a 320-watt panel could become at least 350 watts. “N-type technology allows that to happen.”

Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group LLC, which publishes the Rivard Report provided consulting services to CPS Energy in 2012. Monika Maeckle, who co-founded the Rivard Report, worked for CPS Energy as director of integrated communications and has now returned to consulting.

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