Sharp plans to more than double solar cell production

Sharp is planning to more than double its production of solar cells over the next few years from 710 megawatts to 1.7 gigawatts with a new plant and expansion.

Sharp is planning to more than double its production of solar cells over the next few years as it targets sun-rich nations in southern Europe, Southeast Asia, Central and South America and Africa.

The company, which is based in Osaka in western Japan, sees its total solar cell output rising from the current 710 megawatts to 1.7 gigawatts around 2010.

To hit this goal it is planning to invest YEN 72 billion (US$72.5 million) to build a state-of-the-art factory in Sakai, which is close to its Osaka headquarters. The new factory will be capable of producing 480 megawatts worth of cells per year by March 2010 when it is due to start production.

The cells will be thin-film type which are best suited for use in hot countries where there is plenty of sun.

Sharp's current total production of thin-film cells is just 15 megawatts, but a previously planned expansion will take this to 160 megawatts by October this year. The new plant will bump total production up to 640 megawatts, and Sharp plans to raise this even further to 1 gigawatt with as yet unannounced additional production overseas.

And further expansion is still possible. The new Nara plant will start at 480 megawatts but is being built for a total capacity of 1 gigawatt.

Additionally Sharp is producing crystalline-type cells, which are suited to colder areas like northern Europe, North America and East Asia. Production currently stands at 695 megawatts per year. Sharp hasn't detailed any plans to expand manufacturing of such cells.

The market for solar cells is expanding quickly as greater production brings lower prices, governments begin offering incentives to use clean energy sources and consumers of electricity generally become more aware of environmental issues.

Total worldwide demand for solar cells was about 2.5 gigawatts last year and is expected to almost double to 4 gigawatts this year, according to data from Sharp. The company expects demand to continue rising and hit 10 gigawatts in 2010.

One of Sharp's highest profile customer wins for its solar business came last year, when Google kicked off an ambitious deployment of Sharp solar cells on its Mountain View campus. The solar panels, which cover almost the entire roof space of the complex, are now in operation and produce about 1.6 megawatts of energy. That's enough to cover about one-third of the total energy consumption of the campus, according to Google.

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