Largest PV Plant in the Western Hemisphere

2011 April 29
by roma

SolarWorld, which operates a PV manufacturing plant in Hillsboro, arranged a tour for attendees of the NW Solar Expo. I got to go as a volunteer.

We assembled in the morning at the convention center for a 1-hour intro class by Danny Hytowitz of SolarWorld. We then went to the plant by bus. At the plant, Kevin provided us the tour.

Kevin wanted to show us as much as possible, so he conducted the tour at a brisk pace. There were about 10 attendees in total. Most were small-scale contractors and some government agency representatives.

Kevin showed us some panels from SolarWorld's earliest days. I got a chance to take a photo of the raw silicon that SolarWorld sources (unfortunately we weren't allowed to take pictures during the plant part of the tour). Turns out, a lot of it is from Russia.

The first thing that we saw through a window out onto the plant floor as we were roaming the hall were a bunch of cardboard boxes with labels C through D. Kevin explained that these silicon wafers, which did not meet SolarWorld's QC, would be sold to competitors. ! Throughout the tour, Kevin kept stressing that SolarWorld tests ALL its products, throughout the different stages of the manufacturing process.

We then went up to the second floor and saw, once again through a window, a room where about 80 20-foot tall machines were growing silicon crystal. Here and there were technicians checking up on things, but this operation was without a question the work of machines. 21st century!

I found out from Peter Hicks, SolarWorld's new western region trainer, and a former employee of SunEdison, that the silicon in these ingots was doped with boron before the melting process.

We then made our way to the factory floor where the round ingots are "squared". This shape is what you eventually see as one of the 60 cell in a solar module.

We stood in the hallway listening to Kevin speak while a very industrious robot arm 10 feet away was busy putting labels on different components.

We walked in the hallway adjacent to the part of the plant where wafers were made into cells. It was here that the tops were doped with phosphorus (I learned this stuff just in time to understand the science behind this perfectly). We passed a room with what looked like small nuclear reactors. This was SolarWorld's water treatment facility (they reuse water 4 times before sending it out to the city's water treatment facility).

Kevin then took us to the adjacent building, where the ready cells are soldered into strings of 10. Six of these strings are then laminated onto glass, which is then attached to a frame. We were on the second floor overlooking the plant floor, near the engineering division. A guy at a desk was speaking German on the phone (SolarWorld started in the US, but was bought by a German company. Its headquarters are now in Germany). We didn't get to see this part of the manufacturing process because of a maintenance break.

Overall, I was very impressed with the tour and the company. A lot of companies talk about sustainability. SolarWorld seems to be act on its desire to minimize the environmental impact at all stages of its operations and its product's life cycle. I like to think it's their German roots. Without a doubt, seeing this factory in action was a special treat and quite inspiring.

I went to speak with a representative from Kelly Services, a recruiting agency that oversees entry-level factory floor jobs. However, the representative told me to just apply online.

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