It’s unclear how soon a pilot plant to test a process to make high-quality components for solar cells will be up and running in Sarnia, a vice-president with Ubiquity Solar said Tuesday.
“It’s really variable,” said Cathy MacLellan, shortly after speaking to Seaway Kiwanis members about the solar power company.
“I really don’t know because as we put the parts together it’s pretty complicated, as you could imagine,” she said.
But equipment has arrived, she said, and work is underway to begin testing the company’s process to make polysillicon — a semi-conductive material made using silicon.
Long-term, the aim is to produce wafers and bricks used in the manufacture of photovoltaic solar cells — which put together make up modules, or panels, that generate electricity as part of solar power systems.
The concept behind the $10.3-million pilot plant — to be located at TransAlta’s Bluewater Energy Park — is to start small, testing the process that “provides optimal integration of polysillicon, ingot and brick production, requiring significantly less capital with greater flexibility to meet customer requirements,” ubiquitysolar.com says.
In short, it’s about purity, MacLellan said.
“It’s almost like the flour you use to make a cake, the quality of the flour will affect the final product,” she said.
Ubiquity has proprietary technology company officials hope will make producing high-quality solar cell components cheaper, she said.
“If you can make it cheaper and have really good quality, well that’s a win for the customers,” she said.
The testing, in cooperation with university partners, is expected to wrap up in 2017, officials have said, before production begins.
A planned-for, fully operational commercial plant in Sarnia could employ 500 people or more.
Customers — photovoltaic cell manufacturers — are already lined up in the United States and countries in Asia, MacLellan said.
No one is currently producing solar cell components in Canada, she noted.
“So this is a first-off.”
Meanwhile, the price of solar power technology is already dramatically better than in years past, she said, noting it’s now competitive with other energy-producing technologies in sectors like gas and oil.
The main reason for choosing Sarnia for the pilot plant is an abundance of cheap electricity from TransAlta, she said.
“This process requires a lot of electricity and that is our major cost, other than the equipment,” she said.
Close proximity to the U.S. border, existing infrastructure for the plant, and a skilled workforce are also reasons for selecting Sarnia, MacLellan said.