A first for the United States: Gigawatt-scale manufacturing of glassless silicon solar panels

Lightweight solar panel manufacturer Sunman, which operates a 1-GW factory in China, is starting a new manufacturing division in the United States, called Bila Solar. Bila plans to start a 1-GW solar panel factory in Indianapolis, which should be operational mid-2024.

A Sunman installation in China. China Solar Gazebo Lights Factory

A first for the United States: Gigawatt-scale manufacturing of glassless silicon solar panels

Sunman formed in 2014 and has 500 MW of installations throughout Asia, Australia and Europe. Sunman founder Zhengrong Shi also founded pioneering solar panel manufacturer Suntech Power. Sunman makes frameless and glassless solar panels ideal for challenging applications such as low load-bearing roofs, membrane roofs and vehicles. This innovative product will be adopted into the Bila Solar plant in the United States.

The Bila Solar venture in Indianapolis is expected to create 240 jobs. Bila will invest $35 million to renovate a former Eli Lily facility just south of downtown Indianapolis.

“We are thrilled to begin the Bila Solar journey in Indianapolis,” said Mick McDaniel, VP & US General Manager of Bila, in a press release. “We’re bringing to the U.S. market ultralight modules that go where traditional solar panels can’t go. In Indianapolis, we found a central urban location, a diverse workforce and an entrepreneurial spirit – ideal for our out-of-the-box approach to making clean energy attainable for all.”

Bila’s lightweight solar panel uses half-cut crystalline silicon solar cells laminated between polymer sheets with the junction boxes situated on top. The panels weigh about 17 lbs and can be attached without penetrations.

The United States has not had traditional-market “flexible” solar panel manufacturing since the closing of two Hanergy-owned factories in 2019/2020. MiaSolé (Santa Clara, California) and Global Solar (Tucson, Arizona) made flexible thin-film solar panels, a niche product that had difficulty breaking through the rigid silicon-dominated market. Ascent Solar in Colorado is in the flexible thin-film solar game but has focused on aerospace and defense applications. Bila is instead using silicon solar cells in its glassless solar panels.

U.S. startup Merlin Solar is also using silicon in its flexible panel designs, but it is mostly catering to the “adventure” market — vehicle, off-grid and camping applications.

Kelly Pickerel has over a decade of experience reporting on the U.S. solar industry and is currently editor in chief of Solar Power World.

A first for the United States: Gigawatt-scale manufacturing of glassless silicon solar panels

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