GERMANY: Shell opens solar cell factory in Europe’s ‘Solar Valley’

Shell has opened a new production facility for solar cells in Germany's "Solar Valley". The factory will produce cells for solar modules destined for domestic and foreign sales.

The factory, in Gelsenkirchen near Dusseldorf, will have an initial production of 10Mw, rising in 2001 when a second production line will be added. The building has been designed to hold at least four production lines.

“We believe this factory will be a catalyst for the development of a Solar Valley in Northern Europe,” said Jeroen van der Veer, managing director of the Royal Dutch/Shell group at the opening. “We have decided to take a leading role in renewables and this factory is an example of our activities.”

Discussing the type of solar cells that the factory will produce, Dr Frank Faller of Shell Solar told edie that change is only a matter of time. “The experts do not agree on what will be the type of solar cell in production in 20 years’ time, but they do agree that it won’t be multicrystalline solar cell silicon wafers of the type we are producing now.” Faller admits that thin-film technology is the latest hope and that Shell is watching the progress of two thin-film manufacturing facilities in the region.

Until solar cells take their next technological leap, Shell will focus on optimising the efficiency of the current silicon wafers: “To my knowledge, this is the first fully automated solar cell production line in the world,” said Faller. “The production line is quite long, but the next line is expected to be much shorter”.

In addition to production line innovations, Faller expects Shell to make improvements in the efficiency of the finished solar cells. Cells currently being produced at the factory achieve an average efficiency of 13%, but techniques such as texturisation of the surface could result in improvements. “The efficiency always seems so low, but I remind people that the input energy – the sun’s energy – is free. And it is the only form of electricity generation that avoids the need for moving parts. That cuts down on maintenance costs,” said Faller.

Reducing production costs and riding the wave of a hoped-for solar boom in Germany are Shell Solar’s aims. “It is our target for 2005-2010 to halve production costs. The market is there, even today,” said Pieter Berkhout, chairman of the board of Deutsche Shell. Berkhout also called on the German Government to increase the subsidy paid for solar energy entering the country’s electricity grid, stating that if the subsidy rises high enough a domestic “solar boom” would result. “We don’t just want environmental enthusiasts installing photovoltiac modules, we want normal people choosing them too,” he said. About 50% of the new factory’s production is expected to be sold to domestic customers, after the cells have been inserted into modules at Shell’s other solar factory in Helmond, the Netherlands.

Commenting on the company’s decision to build its second European solar production facility in North Rhine-Westphalia, Berkhout referred to the region as home to Germany’s solar experts and a population with high environmental awareness. The nearby Mont Cenis Further Education Academy in Herne boasts the largest roof-integrated photvoltiac system in the world.

Shell is also seeking to increase the profile of solar energy by including a visitor education centre attached to the factory. It will open in early 2000 and visitors to the World Expo in Hannover will travel to see it and the region’s other solar installations.

Solar cells have been incorporated into the factory building, including the façade, and will contribute about 5% of the facility’s total energy consumption. Government subsidies, from both federal and state sources, contributed approximately 25% of the facility’s total cost.

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