Colton Goodhart, who works at TenKsolar in Bloomington, guided a panel into place for a final power test to make sure that it met specifications.
Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune
The system is installed at 1200 Washington Avenue S, Minneapolis. It’s a 40KW array that’ll produce approximately 51,000 kWh’s in a typical year. Photo credit: tenKsolar
, Star Tribune
A bright shining start-up
- Article by: DAVID SHAFFER
- Star Tribune
- September 14, 2011 - 4:57 PM
As bankruptcies rattle the U.S. solar industry, the chief executive of solar-panel maker TenKsolar says its first-year sales are on target and it expects to be in the black soon.
"We have created about 70 jobs in Bloomington, and it sure does put a smile on your face to see people coming to work where there was no job a year or two ago," CEO Joel Cannon said in an interview.
TenKsolar, launched in 2008, began selling its flat-roof solar-electric panels in August 2010, targeting the commercial market. Its sales in Minnesota have been helped by generous solar incentive programs offered by Xcel Energy Inc., the Minneapolis-based utility. It also received a $503,000 federal stimulus grant.
Cannon said sales for the first full year are expected to be near the company's $12 million goal. The company shipped its first panels to Italy two weeks ago, a second Italian order is in the works and a project in Greece promises additional sales, he said. The company also has sold panels in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Oregon, he added.
He said he expects to add a second shift with about 12 more workers in November.
One distinction of TenKsolar panels is that they reflect additional solar radiation onto the cells using a 3M coating. Cannon said the panels' anti-shock and fire-prevention features, which rely on low-voltage circuitry and built-in ground-fault protection, also have emerged as important selling points.
"A conventional array will arc at 600 volts and it will sit there and arc until it starts a fire," he said. "That can't happen with our system, and what we are finding is that in markets where they have done a lot of solar, they are very tuned in to this."
One of TenKsolar's solar cell suppliers has become an investor. Hanwha, a South Korean industrial giant that had $32 billion in revenues last year from products ranging from chemicals to solar cells, recently purchased about 7 percent of TenKsolar stock, Cannon said.
Hanwha declined to comment on the deal, whose terms were not disclosed. Cannon said Hanwha has committed to provide high quality cells and global sales assistance. The added capital will help expand the Bloomington company, which has a goal of $100 million in sales by the end of 2012, he said.
Cannon said TenKsolar's other stockholders are Dallas Meyer, the founder, president and chief technology officer; some angel investors led by Cannon and his brother Ed Cannon; the Sioux Falls, S.D.-based investment firm PrairieGold Ventures; and National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative, the technology arm of the nation's rural utility cooperatives.
The solar industry has been beset with recent bad news, including bankruptcy filings in August by three larger U.S. solar panel makers. One of them, Solyndra LLC, had its Fremont, Calif., headquarters raided by the FBI last Thursday in an investigation related to a $535 million federal loan guarantee. Two more companies closed plants in Arizona and California.
Experts say U.S. solar panel makers face increasing competition from low-labor-cost countries like China, which has grabbed an significant share of the silicon-based panel market. Solyndra, the California company that had been championed by President Obama, made a bet on a competing thin-film technology and lost.
Pavel Molchanov, an analyst who follows energy stocks for Raymond James & Associates, said Solyndra and Evergreen Solar, a Massachusetts company that also filed for bankruptcy, offered interesting, proprietary technologies that weren't enough to make the companies successful.
"These companies were producing a product that was just not cost competitive with the major players in the industry," he said.
In the past year, retail prices for solar modules in the United States fell 23 percent, driving down the price of installed systems by 16 percent for residential projects and 21 percent for commercial and industrial projects, according to data published by the solar research firm Solarbuzz.
U.S. panel makers can make money, but only if they stay cost competitive overall while offering products with features that are attractive to customers, said Molchanov, who doesn't have a "strong buy" rating on any of the solar companies he tracks.
TenKsolar has benefitted from a 2010 state law that gives Xcel Energy customers an additional subsidy if they purchase Minnesota-made solar panels. That law also brought a second panel-maker to the state. Silicon Energy of Marysville, Wash., this summer opened a plant in Mountain Iron, on Minnesota's Iron Range, to make solar panels primarily for the residential market.
At TenKsolar, Cannon said his company initially didn't focus on the residential market because "we didn't want to dilute our efforts on commercial." Now, with fresh competition, the company plans to bring out a residential package -- designed for sloped roofs -- in the fall.
David Shaffer • 612-673-7090
© 2013 Star Tribune