Solar Celebrity HelioVolt Lands in Austin
Darling of international renewable energy circles to build its first solar-manufacturing plant here
Austin's race to become the clean-energy capital of the nation just got a leg up on its competitors, with local start-up HelioVolt recently committing to build its first solar-manufacturing plant here. The company will lay stakes at a Southeast Austin business park, about a mile from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
HelioVolt is a darling in international renewable-energy circles. The Austin-based firm nabbed worldwide headlines by developing a patented method of manufacturing cutting-edge solar thin-film – a product that doesn't rely on increasingly scarce silicon, as 98% of solar panels do today, but on more plentiful metallic compounds. Thin-film can be mass-produced at a fraction of the cost of traditional solar, leading many to believe it's the breakthrough technology that will finally make solar-generated electricity competitive with natural gas and coal-sourced power.
Economically, it's no longer possible to dismiss companies like HelioVolt as green pipe-dreamers beckoning solar's ever-distant advent. HelioVolt set industry and local records by raising $101 million in its latest round of fundraising (topping Dell), and some of its contemporaries were among 2007's top worldwide financial successes, with some posting remarkable 100% to 365% stock-market gains. "Solar today is where air conditioning was in 1949," said John Langdon, HelioVolt's marketing vice president. Most solar installations, he explained, occur as retrofits when silicon panels are added to roofs, much like a homeowner buying a window-unit air conditioner. But once thin-film solar becomes more plentiful and designers begin to integrate it into new buildings, Langdon predicts it will overtake the world solar market. This type of technology can cover entire residential roofs, as well as sides of office buildings and skyscrapers. Ultimately, Langdon says, once the cost of solar-generated power becomes comparable to that of traditional energy, solar could provide for half of the electricity needs for all the nation's homes and buildings, accounting for up to a third of total U.S. electricity usage. Some experts now say that watermark could occur within five years.
"Landing HelioVolt was a real coup," said Mayor Will Wynn in an e-mail. "Over the last couple of years, we've done an exceptionally good job of bringing clean-tech venture capital to Austin, partnering our institutional structures at UT and Austin Energy and growing our pool of creative resources – i.e.: the folks who do the technical innovation. HelioVolt helps us anchor the other key part of the equation: manufacturing. We need all these elements in place if we're going to capture and capitalize on our potential as a regional clean-tech economy."
HelioVolt expects to complete its factory by June, but a production kickoff date is uncertain, Langdon said. The company is competing with as many as 30 start-ups, as well as automaker Honda, to ratchet up manufacturing of thin-film solar made from copper indium gallium selenide, or CIGS. Langdon says CIGS has historically been viewed as the holy grail solar material, achieving more than twice the efficiency of today's prevalent silicon panels while requiring up to 100 times less material. But CIGS is also among the most difficult materials to work with, he added. "Developing the best technology to rapidly manufacture CIGS [thin-films] is our innovation."
Local business boosters hail the company's commitment to Austin. "HelioVolt puts Austin on the solar map," said Jose Beceiro, clean energy director for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. Since 2005, the chamber has congregated the Austin Clean Energy Council, a delegation of local clean-tech executives and policy leaders. Joel Serface is the incoming chair of the group and the director of Austin's Clean Energy Incubator, a University of Texas offshoot designed to offer organizational and business support to local start-ups in the renewable-energy and efficiency arena. Serface said the incubator and the council approached the city last year seeking more support for medium-sized, high-growth companies like HelioVolt. "There were tax abatements and incentives for billion-dollar companies like Samsung, but the city had no economic development plan for smaller companies, even though they've been bringing in clean-tech, clean-energy jobs," he said. (The City Council approved some $600,000 in property-tax abatements for HelioVolt over the next 10 years; the company is seeking additional incentives from the Texas Enterprise Fund.) Serface has been among the loudest local voices in favor of establishing a cluster of clean-energy industry businesses in Austin. The success of HelioVolt, which is effectively a compound-semiconductor company, Serface said, could create opportunities for other similar business applications.
Although both city and state incentives fell short of other regions vying to seed green economies – something Serface and other clean-tech boosters believe is important to Austin's economic growth and community health – the proximity between HelioVolt's research and development office on East Riverside and the planned factory site helped sway the company's decision to stay in Austin, Langdon said.