This post takes a look at five promising CIGS thin film solar photovoltaic startups at the end of a very tough year for all startups in general and especially for those in the renewable energy sector. The startups in this list are: Solyndra, Nanosolar, MiaSolé, Heliovolt and SoloPower.
by Chris de Morsella, Green Economy Post
It is a rough time to be a startup in the Solar Photovoltaic sector. The financial crisis and deep recession has not only dried up capital, but has also hit demand for solar panels, which has lead to a global supply glut and a price collapse. In this very difficult environment startups must compete with much larger established global suppliers that have factories of hundreds of megawatts each, an established customer base and well developed brand names and sales channels. In this post we look at five promising CIGS thin film Solar PV startups based in the US and try to catalog their unique strengths and accomplishments.
This global economic downturn has coincided with a huge global build up of capacity, especially in China, that has driven prices for solar panels sharply downwards. In fact manufacturers have reported that panel prices have fallen over 30% since mid-2008 a drop that has seriously undermined solar PV companies’ bottom lines. This trend is expected to continue going into 2010, with the average thin-film solar panel price expected to decline to $1.40 per watt in 2010, down 17.6% from $1.70 in 2009 and average prices for crystalline panels expected to drop to $2.00 – or even as low as $1.50 — per watt in 2010, down 20% from $2.50 this year.
It is in this uniquely challenging climate that the startups surveyed here must operate and survive in. For those that do manage to survive and drive down their own production costs the longer term prospects look good as the global market recovers and returns to a long term trend line of rapid growth of global demand.
The startup companies surveyed in this post are all based on thin film Copper-Indium-Gallium-Selenide (CIGS) technology and they have collectively raised substantial amounts of VC capital (by some measures over $1 Billion) CIGS thin film technology holds the promise of high efficiencies – above 10% and up to 14 or 15% conversion rates with 20% conversion efficiency achieved in laboratory settings. Although the materials, Indium, Gallium, Selenium are expensive they are not inherently rare (despite the rare earth moniker) unlike Tellurium, which is even rarer in the Earth’s crust than Platinum is – and is needed in cadmium-telluride thin film technology.
Solyndra, a thin film CIGS startup based in Fremont, CA just announced that it is planning on going public and that it hopes to raise $300 million in capital to finance the final build-out of its second factory complex designed to produce 500 megawatts per year. Solydra started production last year and now has more than $2 billion in back orders that will keep it busy for the next few years. It is also benefitting from a large $535 million loan guarantee from the DOE for building its new production facility.
However persistent concerns remain over its price/efficiency comparison vis a vis competing solar PV solutions including traditional polysilicon crystalline panels (that have come down in price) and other thin film suppliers such as First Solar – in fact, it is possible to purchase crystalline PV panels for around $2/Watt and this price is projected to drop to $1.5/Watt in 2010.
The company is aiming to penetrate and help create a market for commercial flat or low slope rooftops and has tailored its products to capture this market. The company notes that just in the US alone there are around 30 billion square feet of low slope commercial rooftop that if harnessed to provide solar power could add 150 GW of solar power capacity. This significant solar PV market segment seems to be the target niche that Solyndra is trying to and is well positioned to capture.
Solyndra’s panels employ an innovative cylindrical module design that captures sunlight across a 360-degree photovoltaic surface. These closely packed cylindrical solar tubes are capable of converting both direct, diffuse and reflected sunlight from the roof surface below into electric power and they perform optimally when mounted horizontally and packed closely together, thereby covering significantly more of the typically available roof area and producing more electricity per rooftop on an annual basis than a conventional panel installation.
The panels are lightweight and because of the slatted one inch gaps between the individual cylindrical modules on each panel they allow wind to easily blow through them significantly reducing the need to engineer anchoring or ballast in order to fix the panels on the roof. According to the company its panels can withstand hurricane force winds of up to 130 mph. Because of the inherent permeability to winds and gusts their panel’s installation costs can be substantially lower than competing panels that instead require additional anchoring and/or roof ballast in order to achieve comparable wind ratings.
In addition to the superior total light capture and better wind profile the unique cylindrical module design also helps to keep the modules operating at a lower temperature, which is important because the efficiency of solar cells drops off as temperatures in them rise. Lower operating temperatures provide higher energy output and improved reliability.
In addition to a 25-year power warranty, Solyndra’s products have received UL 1703 certification for use in North America and IEC 61730, IEC 61646 for international use.
Solyndra began commercial shipments of its solar panel systems in mid 2008. It has steadily been increasing sales volume and revenue every since. It reported revenues of $58.8 million in the nine months ended Oct 3, up from roughly the same period a year ago. Solyndra reported a net loss of $119.8 million, compared with a $179.8 in the roughly comparable year-ago period. It attributes these losses – as it said in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission — to its continued investment in adding manufacturing capacity.
Nanosolar, a solar PV startup founded in 2002 and headquartered in San Jose, CA has developed a unique roll to roll thin film production process based on a nano-scale CIGS ink that is wet printed onto a conductive aluminum foil substrate. Large capital savings and cost efficiencies are realized by using this CIGS-on-Aluminum stack.
This last September (2009) Nanosolar completed its European panel-assembly factory located in Luckenwalde near Berlin. When operated 24X7 the highly automated facility will sustain a production rate of one panel every ten seconds, which equates to an annual production capacity of 640MW. Nanosolar has also begun serial production in its San Jose, California, cell production factory, which will supply its panel assembly plant in Germany. As Nanosolar’s customers attain project financing from commercial banks for the new panel product, the company will increase its monthly production rate to deliver on its contractual customer commitments totaling $4.1 billion to date.
Nanosolar is betting on its proprietary production process and it does seem to have developed and quite possible perfected an interesting and unique approach to CIGS thin film production that avoids costly clean rooms (needed for high-vacuum deposition) and minimizes the wastage of costly and rare materials. The process is based off of an aluminum substrate instead of the usually employed molybdenum conductive layer that is vacuum sputtered onto a glass substrate. Printing is the fastest and simplest method conceivable for depositing a thin film of material onto a base and Nanosolar is betting that by mastering this technique it can become the CIGS thin film champion – in a race with many contenders.
The results seem pretty impressive so far. Solar foil efficiencies, for Nanosolar cells as high as 16.4% have been independently verified by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and their first-generation production is capable of delivering 11% panels. Their panels have attained IEC 61646 & 61730 product certification. And they seem to have worked out the roll to roll mass production process and are scaling up to mass production.
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MiaSolé, a Silicon Valley startup with headquarters in Santa Clara, CA that has maintained a very low profile in themarket is a pioneer in the development of Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS) thin film photovoltaic products. MiaSolé is the first CIGS thin film producer to have its modules to be certified by Underwriters Laboratory (UL) to the three most critical certification standards (UL 1703 and IEC 61646 and 61730). The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has confirmed that their panels convert sunlight into electricity with an efficiency of 10.2 percent.
Critically the company has begun its first commercial shipments to 30 customers located in the EU and the US. The company now has a factory with an annual production capacity of 60 MW and is in the process of expanding this up to 140 MW of capacity.
The upside potential for future growth for MiaSolé is underlined by the amount of VC funding it has managed to obtain, raising a cool $300 million since its founding in 2001. Some very savvy and well known venture capitalists such as Kleiner Perkins are amongst its VC funders.
However this is a very challenging environment for all startups including even well funded ones such as MiaSolé and its longevity is by no means secure.
Heliovolt, a CIGS thin film solar PV startup founded in 2001 and based in Austin Texas has raised $101 million for its Series B round in 2007 and has recently opened a 20MW capacity panel production facility also located in Austin and the company aims to begin shipping products in 2010. Heliovolt is seeking to differentiate itself from other thin film CIGS startups with an innovative two staged thin film manufacturing process, based on its research into the fundamental physics of the CIGS semiconductor material that reduces capital costs, lowers energy used in manufacturing and promises a higher throughput.
The company’s FASST manufacturing process produces high-quality large-grain CIGS crystals using a unique combination of low-cost ink-based or Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD) based nanoengineered precursor thin films and a reactive transfer printing method. Reactive transfer is a two-stage process relying on chemical reaction between two separate precursor films to form CIGS, one deposited on the substrate and the other on a printing plate in the first stage. In the second stage, these precursors are brought into intimate contact and rapidly reacted under pressure in the presence of an electrostatic field while heat is applied. The use of two independent thin films provides the benefits of independent composition and flexible deposition technique optimization, and eliminates pre-reaction prior to the synthesis of CIGS. High quality CIGS with large grains on the order of several microns, and of preferred crystallographic orientation, are formed in just several minutes based on compositional and structural analysis by XRF, SIMS, SEM and XRD. Cell efficiencies of 14% and module efficiencies of 12% have been achieved using this method. When atmospheric pressure deposition of inks is utilized for the precursor films, the approach additionally provides further reduced capital equipment cost, lower thermal budget, and higher throughput.
SoloPower, a startup based in San Jose, CA manufactures thin-film solar photovoltaic (PV) cells and modules that are based on Copper-Indium-Gallium-Selenide (CIGS) technology. SoloPower is seeking to differentiate itself from other CIGS thin film startups, such as MiaSolé, Solyndra by its proprietary and innovative electrochemical process for laying the thin film onto a thin, flexible foil substrate in a high throughput, roll-to-roll process.
The company claims that by using an electroplating process to bond the CIGS thin film (and presumably also the bottom and top conductor layers as well) onto the substrate that this allows it to utilize nearly 100% of the chemicals, a higher material utilization rate than for other competing CIGS thin film solar processes like evaporation, sputtering or printing.
It has raised a few hundred million in financing to ramp up manufacturing of its thin-film solar cells. However its prospects are clouded by an ongoing lawsuit by the founder and ousted CEO Homayoun Talieh alleging that several of the company’s board members and a handful of investors quest for short-term, personal benefits has driven the company’s value down by $300 million in just months.
The suit alleges that Hudson tried to persuade Talieh to enter into a $376.5 million purchase agreement with the 3M Co. and Hudson for material used for flexible substrate solar power generation. The agreement would have funneled $80 million in cash and warrants to Hudson but been “disastrous” for SoloPower, according to the lawsuit, which states the deal would have drained cash and resources from the business.
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