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Ambitious targets at REC Solar at Herøya – 40% production increase

David Verdu with the end product; a completely smooth and pure block of silicon weighing about 15 kg. The company produces 10 tonnes of silicon blocks every day, but the plan is to increase production by 40 per cent by 2020.

It is now 18 months since Elkem Solar at Herøya – now known as REC Solar Norway – began producing silicon blocks, and since then the company has beaten production records, improved its technology and reduced costs. They have now set ambitious new targets – a 40 per cent production increased by 2020, at a lower production cost. 

“This certainly isn’t a walk in the park,” emphasises plant manager David Verdu, who joined REC Solar about five months ago from his previous position at Norcem in Brevik. “We’ll achieve this production increase with our current staffing levels and the 20 furnaces we have, but the technology will be modified. This will be a hard level to reach, but we feel it’s realistic,” he says. 

Change of name

With Elkem’s announcement yesterday that the company is making a comeback on the stock exchange and buying two plants in China, Elkem Solar AS also announced a change of name. The company will now be known as REC Solar Norway AS and will include the plants at Herøya and Fiskå in Kristiansand.

“Elkem Solar was sold by Elkem in 2015 and is part of the China National Bluestar solar portfolio together with REC Solar in Singapore. The content of the company is exactly the same, but the REC name indicates that Elkem and the solar business are taking slightly different routes,” explains Verdu.

30 times cheaper

Anyone who bought a PC or mobile phone in the 1990s knows that prices have plummeted over the last 25 to 30 years. But no product has seen the same price reduction as solar panels. The price in 1990 was 30 per higher than it is today. This means that suppliers have to produce solar panels 30 times more cheaply than they did in the 1990s!

The price of oil has increased from 20 dollars to 50 dollars a barrel in the same time, and we saw something approaching a ‘crisis’ in the oil industry in 2016-17. 

“This illustrates that we can’t rest on our laurels at all in our industry. We constantly have to go on hunting for improvements in all aspects, and the commitment and involvement of staff are absolutely crucial in this regard,” emphasises Verdu.

66 employees, 13 robots and two autonomous forklift trucks

REC Solar at Herøya operates 13 robots. These fill the crucibles with raw material from REC Solar in Kristiansand, as well as excipients. When the robot has completed the job, the crucible is collected by an autonomous forklift truck and transported to the furnace area.

REC Solar at Herøya operates 13 robots. These fill the crucibles with raw material from REC Solar in Kristiansand, as well as excipients. When the robot has completed the job, the crucible is collected by an autonomous forklift truck and transported to the furnace area.  

REC Solar at Herøya operates 13 robots. These fill the crucibles with raw material from REC Solar in Kristiansand, as well as excipients. When the robot has completed the job, the crucible is collected by an autonomous forklift truck and transported to the furnace area.  

And the company is coming up with new ways of achieving improvements. The ‘staff’ now includes 66 employees, 13 robots and two autonomous forklift trucks.

“This makes a difference to our competitive position. A similar company in China has many more employees, and a robot costs about the same in Norway and China. Far more of the traditional process industry ought to show an interest in robot technology,” reckons David Verdu.

Because the Elkem group is not afraid of robot technology or automation. “We’re implementing robot technology production at home,” said Geir Ausland of REC Solar during the Digital21 conference at Herøya earlier this winter. He also emphasises the fact that robot technology is not unique, anyone can copy it. The unique thing is the combination of automation and the Norwegian model based on trust.

Precision all the way along the line 

4000 tonnes of silicon blocks are produced at the huge halls at the plant each year. Now the aim is to increase production by 40 per cent by 2020 without increasing the number of furnaces or staff. 

In the production halls, the robots and forklift trucks are operating at full speed. The robots fill the crucibles very precisely with raw material from REC Solar in Kristiansand, as well as excipients. An autonomous forklift truck collects the filled crucible and transports it to the furnace area.

After 72 hours in a furnace at 1400 degrees, the crucible is collected by the forklift truck and taken to the next stage, where crucible residues are stripped off and the surface is blasted clean so that the robot cutting the blocks can get to it. The end product is a completely smooth and pure silicon block weighing approx. 15 kg, which is sold to manufacturers of solar cells and panels. 

“This is very much a matter of precision, which is one of our most important values. We’re dependent on precision in all elements of our production process, regardless of whether humans or robots execute them,” emphasises David Verdu.

The plant produces around 10 tonnes of silicon blocks every day, resulting in annual production amounting to around 4000 tonnes. Enough silicon is produced to make 70,000 solar cells when operating 20 furnaces for a period of 72 hours. 

Vidar Hockman blasts the surface of the huge silicon block clean so that the robot cutting the block can get to it. This operation is still performed manually.

Vidar Hockman blasts the surface of the huge silicon block clean so that the robot cutting the block can get to it. This operation is still performed manually.

Top quality and small ecological footprint

REC Solar’s Silicon quality is some of the best in the world today, yet its ecological footprint is one of the world’s smallest. 75 per cent of production goes to REC Solar in Singapore, while the rest is sold to Russia, Germany, France and China. 

“The 10 biggest producers in the world are Chinese, and the 11th is part of the REC group. Now that the Chinese authorities are starting to tighten up on environmental requirements – targeting the cheapest producers who use energy produced from fossil fuels, for example – this will provide us with a more level playing ground on which to compete,” says David Verdu.  

And with ambitious new targets to meet by 2020, there is plenty to be done when it comes to developing technology. The technology in a separate test furnace, the 21st furnace at the Herøya plant, will be modified and improved. 

Of all new energy sources, solar energy was the most commonly installed type in 2016. The figures for 2017 are now eagerly anticipated. 

A different ‘galaxy’

The transition from Norcem to REC Solar has been exciting and challenging for David Verdu, who has worked for the Heidelberg group for 22 years. 

“The solar industry is a completely different ‘galaxy’ to cement, but they share a lot of features as well – ambitions, environmental targets, the production process and the culture,” he explains.

Norcem aims to achieve zero emissions by 2030, for instance, and it is participating in the national CO2 capture project.

From fully grown to ‘newborn baby’

Verdu was born in Spain, has a Spanish father and moved to Oslo and Norway at the age of 9. “There were no academics in my family, so my plan was to work on the green at Oslo Golf Club and do judo as well,” he says.

“Making the transition from cement to solar energy has been exciting and instructive, and they share a lot of features even though solar power is a completely different ‘galaxy’ to cement,” says David Verdu. 

Quite by chance he was inspired to study chemistry, later moving on to the Norwegian Institute of Technology (now NTNU, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology), and specialised in high-temperature chemistry, a field relevant in the production of both cement and silicon. However, he is at pains to point out that REC Solar has lots of talented specialists and experts, and that his primary role is to achieve results together with staff.

“Making the transition from a robust, fully grown company with 60,000 employees to a ‘newborn baby’ like REC Solar wasn’t planned, but what I experienced during my interviews really piqued my interest. I really wanted to be part of all this!” he says, adding that Norwegian mainland industry has major opportunities for growth and development. 

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