Chinese aluminum or American-made steel? Origami Solar challenges the solar frame standard

Chinese aluminum or American-made steel? Origami Solar challenges the solar frame standard
Origami Solar founder Eric Hafter wields his steel solar frame (courtesy: Origami Solar)

The front page of the December 22, 1908 edition of The New York Times features a scathing rebuke of steel tariffs from Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie. The legendary steel magnate (you don’t get called that for nothing) ridiculed the Ways and Means Committee over the tax, arguing it was artificially inflating the price of steel.

Carnegie was an advocate of free trade. More than that, he wholeheartedly believed American steel could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any industry in the world. Have a gander at another bold thing he said about those same tariffs:

“Take back your protection; we are now men, and we can beat the world at the manufacture of steel.”

– Andrew Carnegie, on U.S. steel tariffs [1908]

Goosebumps. As a motivator, Andy was surely the Dan Campbell of early 18th-century industrialism. He made a fortune, and lots of stuff is named after him.

It’s not a stretch to say that Carnegie and tycoons of his ilk saw American-made steel as a totem for American ideals. It represented the strength and fortitude of a young industrial nation.

Now our country- older, wiser, and admittedly saggy in spots- is reinvesting in domestic manufacturing. Through incentives and adders, we are shortening supply chains and prioritizing products made for Americans, by Americans.

And if Origami Solar has its way, good old-fashioned American-made steel is going to be at the heart of the Renaissance noveau.

Just look at it. Isn’t she lovely? That’s American-made steel you’re staring at, buddy! Revel in its clean lines and how neatly its structure separates one segment of this story from the next (courtesy: Origami Solar)

Steel or aluminum? Framing the argument

Origami Solar has developed a steel solar panel frame that promises increased durability, reduced material and manufacturing costs, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s 100% made in America. The company’s CEO Gregg Patterson calls that a “value-stacked proposition.”

But if all that’s true, why isn’t steel already the industry standard? Great question, eagle-eyed reader.

According to a 2020 study by the World Bank, aluminum is the most widely used mineral in solar photovoltaic (PV) applications. From frames to panels, the World Bank estimates more than 85% of demand is for aluminum. There are lots of good reasons for that; aluminum is light and relatively cheap, it’s pretty flexible, and its reflectivity may even improve efficiency.

I got all of that from, though. I bet if you asked the Sesame Street Trade Association if cookies were important, you’d have some blue monsters banging on your trashcan pretty fast.

That said- as far as I can tell- unless you’ve been developing a project with unique needs, steel hasn’t been much of a consideration.

But what if the paradigm shifted? What if turbulent weather events became more frequent and widespread? Or perhaps we started caring about how dirty most aluminum production is? And what if supply chain constraints made it a lot harder to get the goods from Asia anyway?

Change the variables and you change the result of the equation. That’s not a Carnegie quote- I just came up with that on the spot.

Steeling some market share

Patterson, who is awaiting guidance on Origami’s thirteen pending patents, thinks he’s got a better mousetrap– and a headstart.

“Origami is the only player in the market that has gone through four years of development of the frame design, the fabrication, and supply chain,” he claims. He expects that’s going to pay dividends as we mount up to meet aggressive clean energy targets.

According to Patterson, we need to build 13,000 kilometers (8,077-ish miles for us stubborn Americans) of frames for every GW of solar modules produced. The United States intends to more than double its solar capacity in the next few years. Was the plan to import most of that?

“There’s not a supply chain in the U.S. big enough to do it with aluminum,” argues Patterson. He’s right.

Between 2010 and 2017, 18 of the 23 aluminum smelters in the United States shut down production, increasing reliance on foreign supply. Domestic aluminum production has improved over the last few years, but the U.S. still takes in more than it makes, importing about 4.8 million metric tons of aluminum in 2023, mostly from Canada.

China and Russia are two of the top three aluminum-producing nations; China itself controls nearly 60% of the world’s market. You don’t need a degree in geopolitics to understand why that matters right now.

“If you’re a business person and you can’t depend on getting a supply of the critical materials, you have no business,” asserts Patterson. “It doesn’t matter how profitable you are. You have no business if you can’t have a predictable supply.”

Ready supply, too. Rather than theoretically waiting for months to receive frames from Asia (which may have been damaged en route), a customer might be able to fill an order from Origami Solar within hours.

“And that has ripple effects on inventory, the cash on hand, and how they’re keeping that inventory,” contends Patterson.

By sourcing steel from an established regional industry ecosystem, solar module manufacturers can eliminate supply chain constraints, accelerate the transition to carbon-free energy, and level the global playing field for module production, reads some crisp marketing copy on Origami Solar’s website.

An intimate look at Origami’s steel solar frame (courtesy: Origami Solar)

Stronger, cleaner, sexier solar frames

“A solar frame is the least sexy thing I’ve done in my entire career,” laughs Patterson, who knows sex appeal. He started at an inverter company and later sold battery energy storage optimization software to Enel Green Power, for crying out loud.

“But everybody wants a better frame,” he continues. “Because if you’re going to invest literally billions of dollars on a utility project, you want to get the maximum output, and extreme weather is getting pretty common. And with the aluminum frames on the biggest modules, they’re starting to break on moderate weather events, not just extreme.”

Per Patterson, frames are the costliest component of a module outside the solar cells themselves. He suggests an unexpectedly large number of aluminum ones come off the boat damaged- a dirty industry secret that nobody wants to admit.

Patterson and his team have spent the last seven months engaging module manufacturers to test Origami’s offerings, which the company reports meet structural requirements and have a projected lifespan of 30 years. Origami contracted Technology, Engineering, & Consulting for the Solar Industry (TECSI) to conduct a variety of tests and found that electrical components of the PV laminate are better protected by their steel frame than by a traditional aluminum one. In its conclusion, TECSI added: “The Origami roll-formed steel frames proved to be overall resilient and able to surpass the performance of typical aluminum frames in many circumstances even though it was 13% shorter.”

“Steel is a much better metal than aluminum,” boasts Patterson, who warns of solar panels acting like sails being buffeted by high winds. “You have to protect these really sensitive cells and the glass that encompasses the cells.”

Over the last six months, Origami’s CEO has heard concern over the fragility of existing aluminum frames. “We’re talking to all the biggest EPCs and all the big developers, and they’re seeing it and worried about it,” Patterson reveals. “The aluminum frame is fundamentally buckling.”

Plus, steel frames are unquestionably better for the environment. According to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project, global aluminum production accounted for the equivalent of 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2021, matching emissions from 150 million U.S. homes.

According to Origami Solar, using aluminum for module frames contributes more than ten times the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of its steel frames. Patterson believes his company is saving close to 190 pounds of carbon per module. An environmental impact report suggests Origami’s frames will reduce production-related greenhouse gases by up to 93%, representing a reduction of 80 kg per module or 200 metric tons per MW, through the use of recycled steel. 

Hey, get a load of this joint! An intimate look at part of one of Origami’s steel solar frames (courtesy: Origami Solar)

Folding it all together

While other manufacturers may have to lean on the IRA and its various adders to make the dollars and cents of a project work, Origami can tap into them while also maintaining a natural cost advantage. “Steel is one-third the cost of aluminum,” reminds Patterson. “So we don’t need necessarily a lot of incentives for us to deliver great value.”

Origami Solar is looking to subcontract production of its frames, touting a partnership with U.S. Steel and a number of Tier 1 vendors.

“I’m not in the business of making steel,” our friend Carnegie once quipped. “I’m in the business of building men. They make steel.” (That dude was a walking quote!)

Patterson is tasking some people to do just that, and hopefully soon. Origami intends to launch its first steel solar frame production line somewhere in the Central United States this year. The wait to do so has been an exercise in patience for a company that made headlines in 2022 after winning the $500,000 grand prize in the U.S. Department of Energy’s American-Made Solar Prize competition.

“It’s the intricacy of how you fold the steel, not paper, into something that is much greater than what it started with.”

– Origami Solar CEO Gregg Patterson, on the origin of his company’s name

“We start with a flat piece of steel on a big coil,” the CEO describes. He’s explaining why his company is named after the traditional Japanese art of paper folding.

“The unique and very dynamic loading of a solar module- it takes a very unique cross-section to achieve in a sophisticated way, the strength and stiffness you need. So we turn that flat piece of metal into this shape that allows it to plug and play.”

He offers one more thing. It’s no “publicly shaming the House and Means Committee,” but it’s a vote of confidence.

“Nobody has to worry about- is it aluminum or steel frames? The steel will do everything that aluminum can, only better,” concludes Patterson.

We’ll see if American-made steel is still strong enough to stand on its own.