When Tucson-based Solon Corp. announced in August it was shutting down its local photovoltaic panel manufacturing line and laying off about 60 workers, it was a painful blow to the region's growing solar-energy sector.
Solon's manufacturing operation is a source of pride on the Tucson solar scene, but the company said the local line simply couldn't compete with cheap Asian imports.
But since then, Solon has actually added some workers and plans to ramp up a new, though smaller, production line with a new product designed for flat building roofs.
Solon, which makes silicon-based solar panels primarily for the utility-scale and large commercial market, recently introduced SOLquick, a modular PV system for flat roofs that features a lightweight composite frame.
Solon has teamed up with Andersen Corp., a major window manufacturer, to make the frames with a composite material made from wood fiber and plastic.
The mounting system allows the modules to be mounted on rooftops quickly without penetrating the roof, said Bill Richardson, Solon's director of research and development.
Since shutting down its panel assembly line, Solon has hired a few people to handle the SOLquick product and hopes to open a smaller production line for the panels as needed, Richardson said.
Meanwhile, Tucson-based Global Solar Energy Inc. recently announced the first installation of a so-called building-integrated PV, or BIPV, product it unveiled in mid-2010, along with marketing partnerships with several U.S. and European solar and roofing companies.
BIPV solar equipment is integrated into a building's structure or architecture, though the term has been more broadly used to include products like PV roofing shingles.
Global Solar, a maker of thin-film copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) photovoltaics founded in Tucson in 1996, started with flexible solar charging systems for mobile and military use. Its flexible PowerFlex BIPV panels are essentially cemented to flat roofs.
Global Solar, which is partly owned by Solon, recently announced sales partnerships for its PowerFlex panels with four U.S. companies and three Italian firms, including two roofing companies. The company says it's finalizing agreements with other market partners in Europe, the U.S. and Asia.
Global Solar also is working with industrial giant Dow Chemical to develop a line of solar-powered roofing shingles.
Going after the BIPV market seems like a smart move.
The research firm NanoMarkets LC has forecast that the BIPV market will surpass $11 billion in revenues in 2016, up from more than $2 billion this year.
Inside the BIPV market, tiles and floating panels are expected to generate nearly $3 billion in sales by 2016, compared with $691 million in 2011; and flexible BIPV products will create slightly more than $1.9 billion in sales, from an estimated $153 million in 2011, NanoMarkets says.
Companies getting into the BIPV market are looking for ways to profit amid an overall PV market flooded with cheap silicon panels and government subsidies expected to shrink in coming years, said Lawrence Gasman, principal analyst and co-founder of Virginia-based NanoMarkets.
"BIPV offers them another way out, and that is essentially to share some of the costs with building products of another kind," like roofing and architectural glass, Gasman said. "Quite a number of companies are making grasping steps toward something that can be called 'integrated.' "
Partnerships with builders and roofing companies are smart, as is Global Solar's teaming up with a major household brand name like Dow, Gasman said, but the BIPV entrants still face a challenge to be cost-competitive.
Another analyst said that many solar companies are jumping into BIPV in desperation, as their standard products have become noncompetitive with cheap silicon-based panels.
"Why bother sticking on this (BIPV) panel when you can buy cheap silicon panels?" said Eric Wesoff, editor in chief of Boston-based Greentech Media.
Wesoff noted that Energy Conversion Devices Inc., a Michigan-based maker of flexible solar panels for the BIPV market, recently shut down manufacturing operations amid a financial restructuring.
While there are some true BIPV products - such as solar shingles and new technologies that integrate PV with architectural glass - products such as Global Solar's stick-on modules are more aptly called "building applied PV," Wesoff said.
There is hope that BIPV will help some solar companies expand into commercial building, but high cost structures may doom such efforts, he said.
"Until it (BIPV) can get into the roofer mentality and supply chain, I think this remains a marketing effort," he said.
Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at email@example.com or 573-4181.
NOTE: An earlier version of this column erroneously indicated that Solon's SOLquick product was being sold as a building-integrated PV product. It is designed for flat commercial rooftops but is not a BIPV product.