As module prices continue to fall, competition between manufacturers is fierce. Companies search for any advantage they can gain on their competitors, and trade secrets are protected as if they were nuclear weapons codes.
Which is why module maker Solaria has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (Oakland Division) yesterday against three companies it accuses of trade-secret thievery that led to the unveiling modules with surprisingly similar designs at 2016 SNEC show in Shanghai and Intersolar 2016 in San Francisco, according to court documents.
At issue is whether proprietary technology for Solaria’s PowerXT modules was stolen in 2014 by GCL Solar Energy and GCL-Poly Energy Holdings (both of whom are being sued by Solaria in a separate lawsuit filed in September) and provided to three companies – Jiangsu Seraphim Solar System Company, Seraphim Solar USA Manufacturing and Suzhou Autoway System Company.
Solaria accuses of all three companies of manufacturing knockoff modules whose designs are so similar to the PowerXT modules – first introduced in May 2016 – that they could not have been manufactured without intimate knowledge of Solaria’s proprietary information. It also alleges that an Autoway plant manager admitted receiving the stolen information from GCL.
The suit alleges Autoway then passed the information on to Seraphim, which produced a third knock-off panel that it named Eclipse. If the allegations are true, it means there are four nearly identical modules on the market, which Solaria alleges has caused irreparable harm to its ability to sell its PowerXT modules.
According to Solaria, its proprietary technology platform uses high-density strings of interconnected PV cells that are arranged on the module more efficiently to reduce inactive space between cells. It also says it employs highly advanced semiconductor manufacturing processes and equipment in which the solar cells are scribed and singulated into highly-uniform strips, re-assembled into strings of cells, packaged and tested.
Solaria says that using a ribbonless interconnection process, cells are shingled without soldering, creating a highly reliable and efficient power unit assembly. Without the competitive advantage provided by these innovations, the company says, it will never be able to recover the research-and-development costs as it expected to do.
Solaria is demanding a jury trial and hopes to force the defendants to:
- pay both compensatory and punitive damages;
- provide restitution in the form of all profits, gains or other advantages from the alleged stolen information or, barring the ability to prove those charges, a reasonable royalty;
- cease manufacturing the panels Solaria says are knock-offs; and
- pay Solaria’s lawyer fees.
The company is also asking the court to declare Solaria the rightful owner of the proprietary technology.