SolAero modernizing New Mexico solar-panel factory for massive OneWeb contract
This article was updated Feb. 16 to add additional info about SolAero’s background.
WASHINGTON — Solar-panel manufacturer SolAero Technologies is investing $10 million to expand its Albuquerque, New Mexico, facility to produce solar panels for OneWeb’s constellation of 900 low-Earth-orbit telecommunciations satellites, SolAero announced Feb. 2.
SolAero CEO Brad Clevenger said the new factory will bring under one roof the different steps involved in building solar panels.
Clevenger said SolAero had been moving toward greater vertical integration prior to winning the OneWeb solar panel contract last June.
SolAero is the rebranded Emcore Space Photovoltaics Business after private equity firm Veritas Capital purchased the division from Emcore Corp. in 2014 for $150 million. After becoming SolAero, the company made two acquisitions – Alliance Spacesystems, a supplier of composite structures for spacecraft applications, and Vanguard Space Technologies, a producer of satellite structural components and assemblies. SolAero now produces both solar cells and their composite substrates, and integrates them to make the entire panel.
“That gave us a distinct advantage in the OneWeb competition,” Clevenger said in an interview with SpaceNews. “All of that technology and know-how is in house for us. It’s a simpler supply chain management job for OneWeb.”
The modernized 40,000 square foot facility, which Clevenger estimated is already 80 percent done, will enable SolAero to aggregate work from its three manufacturing sites — Albuquerque, plus two in California — all in the same location.
“What this investment will allow us to do, and that we are substantially most of the way through doing, is collocate the manufacturing of the carbon composite honeycomb panel with the solar cells and solar circuits — the photovoltaic piece — so when it leaves the shop it’s ready to be integrated into the higher-level assembly,” Clevenger said. “I don’t know of anyone else that’s doing that today.”
Clevenger said SolAero has supplied between 300 and 350 kilowatts of spacecraft solar power per year for the past five years, and has its panels on more than 200 spacecraft. For the OneWeb order, SolAero will have to match the production cadence of OneWeb Satellites, the OneWeb-Airbus joint venture that aims to eventually build two-to-three satellites per day at the factory its building in Exploration Park, Florida.
Clevenger said SolAero is scheduled to start building OneWeb qualification articles in March with the intent of being production-ready by September.
“We are well on our way, far enough to know that we will be building first flight articles probably within 45 days or so,” he said.
The new facility will enable SolAero to build the OneWeb solar panels separately from those produced for other customers. Trying to build the OneWeb solar panels alongside other projects would likely disrupt existing manufacturing operations, Clevenger said. Rather, Clevenger said SolAero will use the new facility to test old assumptions and optimize production techniques. Those lessons could then migrate over to use in the company’s traditional product line.
“Satellite solar panels have substantially been produced the same way for the entire 20 years that we’ve been in this business, but consistent with everything else that’s been said and is being done around the OneWeb program, they are looking to change that, and we are very happy to partner with them to advance our piece of it,” Clevenger said.