SolFocus, a California-based solar energy company, announced the completion Thursday of a Mesa expansion project that will increase its capacity to make solar glass reflectors by 15 times.
The new plant at 3130 N. Oakland will make high-precision mirrored-glass reflectors that are used to concentrate sunlight on photovoltaic cells that produce electric current when exposed to sunlight.
By magnifying the sun's energy by about 500 times, the solar cells produce electricity far more efficiently than conventional flat-panel solar cells, the company said.
Called concentrator photovoltaic technology, the company's panels will go into solar power plants in Spain and Greece and could be deployed in the United States soon, said Jason Ellsworth, general manager of the Mesa glassworks plant.
"We're working on establishing the market here," he said. "There is a lot of legislation on the federal level that is encouraging this."
Based in Mountain View, Calif., SolFocus was started in 2005 by entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The company opened its first small glass-manufacturing plant in Mesa in 2007 to produce reflectors for development projects. The second plant, in the same industrial park near Falcon Field airport, will allow the company to move into commercial production, Ellsworth said.
The new plant will have the capacity to produce two million reflectors annually for 30 megawatts of solar power. That's enough electricity to supply about 15,000 homes.
The first Mesa facility produced 45,000 mirrors in 2008.
The company employs about 100 people in Mesa and plans to expand to 150 by the end of this year as production ramps up, Ellsworth said.
The company makes use of numerous suppliers and partners to produce the final solar cell/reflector modules.
The solar cells, which are made of gallium arsenide instead of conventional silicon, are purchased from the satellite industry. And the modules are assembled by subcontractors in China and India.
Concentrator PV technology is still in its infancy, but SolFocus officials believe it has good prospects in areas with abundant sunshine like Arizona. It doesn't work as well as other solar technologies in areas with greater cloud cover.
"It is a niche market for us," Ellsworth said. "We can compete in the hottest climates."
He said the cost of the technology is expected to decline as production increases, creating economies of scale.
Mesa Mayor Scott Smith said the SolFocus expansion is evidence that stodgy Mesa can attract and retain cutting-edge technology firms.
"Mesa is always looked on as boring, but we have been into green things long before green was cool," he said, citing the city's recycling and water-management programs. "SolFocus takes it to another level. We are becoming a living laboratory for how new technologies can ... become commercially viable."
SolFocus President Mark Crowley said the company's Mesa operations will have a $14 million annual economic impact with the potential to increase as the local supplier base expands.