GT Solar marks huge strides with expansion

MERRIMACK – Baking sand until it melts sounds like a poor basis for a $600 million business, but the symbolic ribbon that was cut Friday to mark the huge expansion of GT Solar’s plant on Daniel Webster Highway indicated otherwise.

The ceremony, which drew former Gov. John H. Sununu as a stand-in for his son, U.S. Sen. John E. Sununu, marked the latest step in the fast growth of the state’s highest profile entry in the alternative energy field.

GT Solar makes various equipment that is used to make solar panels. Over the past four years the company has seen a 50-fold increase in sales, said President and Chief Executive Officer Thomas Zarrella during a Friday tour of the factory. The company’s $50 million listing on Nasdaq in July was one of the few successful public offerings for alternative-energy firms this year.

On Friday, the celebration of GT Solar had a more physical focus: the doubling in size of the company headquarters to 106,000 square feet, with some 225 employees.

“This building was built with the future in mind, but nobody realized how big the future would be,” said Zarrella.

The heart of the Merrimack operation is a factory that churns out huge furnaces, which cost roughly $600,000 apiece. Giant stainless-steel eggs as tall as a person carefully bake raw silicon so that crystals grow to create giant silver ingots.

The ingots are the first step in the creation of solar panels; they are thinly sliced into thousands of wafers that turn sunlight into electricity.

These furnaces are shipped all over the world – 90 percent of them outside the U.S., increasingly to China.

GT Solar has other operations with some 80 employees in other parts of the world – including Montana and two China locations – that are involved in all other parts of the solar-cell manufacturing process, from wafers to modules.

Increasingly, said Zarrella, the company provides expertise as much as equipment, helping feed the world’s appetite for solar power in the face of global warming and soaring energy prices.

The expansion hasn’t been without bumps. The stock price is barely above half its initial price of $16.50, and the company faces a lawsuit from disgruntled stockholders who claim the company hid its knowledge that it was losing a contract from a major customer, Chinese company LDK Solar.

Last week produced good news in the form of the U.S. Senate backing a tax credit for alternative energy. The motion, which goes to the U.S. House of Representatives, is seen as important in driving the adoption of solar power in this country.

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GT Solar’s expansion is needed to meet a backlog in orders of $1.3 billion. The company was producing about 40 furnaces per month a year ago but can ship 75 per month now, largely because the expansion eliminates a shipping bottleneck, Zarrella said.

The expansion also allows an expanded research-and-development department, both to test vendors’ materials to ensure they’re up to par and to figure out more ways to increase the amount of power produced by silicon.

The efficiency of solar cells has crept up from about 13 percent to nearly 20 percent over the past decade, partly because of improvements in the creation of silicon crystals.

“It’s all in the growth cycle of the ingot,” said Zarrella.

GT Solar’s proprietary software and hardware is working on that problem. The aim is to reduce the cost of electricity produced by solar cells down from the current level of roughly 25 cents a kilowatt hour, closer to the prices charged on the standard grid by traditional energy sources.

If that goal gets nearer, the solar-power industry is certain to grow.