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The Rise of CIGS – Finally?

If the rise of the solar energy market is written as a fantasy novel, then the makers of copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) are members of a mythical clan from far far away that are reputed to be fierce warriors who are gathering forces to reshape the geopolitics of the realm. But so far, this big army hasn't materialized.

But it’s marching closer to the battlefield. After years of research and development, along with unfulfilled promises, some makers of CIGS (or variations of the same ingredients) thin films seem to be finally getting ready. Solar Frontier, part of Showa Shell, is building a 900-MW factory in Japan, a manufacturing capacity that could turn the company into the most formidable CIGS competitor. The new factory, its third, would put the company’s total annual production capacity at 980 MW. Solar Frontier expects to start rolling out panels this fall and reach mass production by next spring, says Greg Ashley, the new chief operating officer for Solar Frontier’s American operations.

“You can’t do this unless you are a GW player,” Ashley said during an interview at Intersolar in San Francisco earlier this month. “Our No. 1 story is we have bankable product that is available when contractors need them.”

Meanwhile in the Silicon Valley, MiaSole promises to delivers solar panels with 13 percent efficiency by the end of this year. Stion just raised $70 million to expand the annual capacity of its factory from 10 MW to 100 MW over the next year, and it has inked development and manufacturing deals with one of its investors, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. And last but not least, Solyndra is building a factory thanks to a $535 million federal loan. Last month, the company said it would borrow $175 million from existing investors in order to start manufacturing at its new factory in the fourth quarter of this year and increase the annual production to at least 300 MW by the end of 2011.

Sulfurcell, a German company that makes copper-indium-sulfide panels and is backed by Intel Capital, built a factory last year in Berlin that will reach 75 megawatts eventually, and it and set up a U.S. office this year. The company is working on a 3.8-kilowatt project at a school in Los Angeles, said Boris von Bormann, Sulfurcell’s director of sales for North America.  Avancis, which makes copper-indium-selenide panels, recently broke ground on a 100-MW factory in Germany.

While the CIS/CIGS panel manufacturers are eager to announce their progress, the top players in the market are hardly moved by these announcements. Manufacturers of crystalline silicon panels with factory capacities of around 1 GW or more largely dominate the market. And plenty more have hundreds of MW at their disposal. The likely success of the CIS/CIGS thin films remains an unwritten chapter in the story about solar technologies.

“If they could produce technologies at a price that is competitive, then the next thing is to get the market right. I think most of them are not in the position to do that yet because they don’t have the high volume production and the right costs,” said Finlay Colville, a senior analyst at Solarbuzz. “When you look at 2010, you will start to see manufacturing capacities installed and the cost structure a little bit clearer.”

What is clear is that developers of CIGS technologies need just one success story to win over project developers and investors. They need their own First Solar, which produced 1,011 MW of cadmium-telluride solar panels in 2009, more than any rivals worldwide. First Solar’s success has helped other cadmium-telluride thin-film makers line up investments and project an aura of great potentials even though these other companies are startups that have similar production capacities as most of the CIGS companies.

Could Solar Frontier be that model CIGS company? The $1 billion investment to build the 900-MW plant is certainly a bold move in that direction, considering that the Japanese company currently only has a 20-MW and a 60-MW plant. By adding the third factory, Solar Frontier is poised to be the second largest thin-film manufacturer. Many thin-film startups have factories with less than 100 MW of annual capacities.

Manufacturing is very much a game of scale. Having a large production capacity and running the manufacturing equipment without major glitches are critical for reducing costs.

“I consider it a big transition when you get up to over 100 MW and be able to produce and sell that. Solar Frontier is probably going to be the one to do it first,” said Robert Birkmire, director of the Institute for Energy Conversion at the University of Delaware.

How much a company actually produces can be quite different than its factory capacity, however. In 2009, CIGS companies worldwide collectively shipped about 43 MW of solar panels, which came mostly from Solar Frontier, Global Solar Energy and Honda, according to GTM Research.

To win over customers, CIGS players must sell their products at prices comparable to those that use crystalline silicon or cadmium-telluride. If they can’t offer a lowest price, then they have to show that their solar panels could produce more energy over the lifetime of a project, typically 25 years or longer, in order to justify the higher prices.

There isn’t a standard formula for calculating the cost of producing solar electricity over a project’s lifetime, though the math typically includes the costs of equipment and labor for installation and maintenance and takes into account the gradual decline of power production as the solar panels age. Sometimes, project developers put a lot of focus on getting the cheapest solar panels available (measured in dollar per watt) instead of the cost of electricity production (measured in dollar per watt-hour).

“Often, it’s important for a party to build at the lowest cost possible whereas another party would be interested in the higher energy yield at the end,” von Bormann said. “There is often a disconnect between the two.”

First Solar says its manufacturing cost was $0.81 per watt as of the first quarter of this year, when the average efficiency of its panels 11.1 percent. Crystalline Silicon solar panel makes have been able to produce their goods closer to that cost because long-term contract prices for silicon fell 50 percent from 2008 to 2009. The spot market price for silicon was close to $70 per kilogram a year ago, and it was around $55 per kilogram this month, said Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Efficiencies for crystalline silicon solar panels on the market range from low to high teens.

Major crystalline silicon panel makers were selling their products at around at around €1.2 [US $1.68] per watt during the first quarter of this year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The prices went up to €1.70 per watt at one point in the second quarter because developers were rushing to complete their projects in Germany before the German government reduced incentives starting this month, but the prices could drop again over the next 12 months.

Ashley declined to disclose Solar Frontier’s manufacturing cost, but said it’s not as low as First Solar’s for now. Solar Frontier is currently producing panels with 11.5 percent average efficiency, and it expects to hit 14 percent by 2014, he said. The panels today are rated at 85 watts and measured 2 ft. by 4 ft. New panels with 90-watt and above are undergoing UL testing now. The 900-MW factory would roll out 3 ft. by 4 ft. panels, Ashley said.

The manufacturer is selling panels to distributors and project developers or contractors. It doesn’t want to do its own project development, a role that manufactures such as First Solar, SunPower and Solon have taken on.

Talking Points

So where does that leave the startups with less manufacturing might? Some of them claim they already could be competitive against crystalline silicon panel makers in price — or will soon be. And then there are selling points that aren’t directly connected to panels’ pricing, such as claims that that CIGS panels don’t degrade and lose their power output as quickly as crystalline silicon solar panels. Or the suitability of CIGS panels for building facades because they could be encased with flexible materials instead of glass (though CIGS panel makers have said for a while that the market needs better encapsulant materials before doing away with glass because moisture is a particularly deadly enemy to the CIGS compound). SoloPower, for example, recently announced its first line of flexible CIGS modules for rooftops.

Sulfurcell believes its production experience and new 75-MW factory will enable it to win orders from installers and distributors. The company first began shipping from pilot production in 2005 and has seen about 7 MW of its solar panels installed since, von Bormann said. It’s shipping 65-watt panels at around 8 percent efficiency. Sulfurcell expects to boost the efficiency to at least 10 percent by 2011, he added. The goal is to get to 15 percent by 2015.

“There is a lot of hype of U.S. CIGS players but not many products are available,” von Bormann said. We have been shipping modules since 2005. We’ve sold products. That’s something to our advantages.”

The company is experimenting with adding gallium and selenium to the cells in order to boost efficiencies. Getting the right mix of the key ingredients in the manufacturing process — to make sure they are evenly distributed so that the layer maintains the same thickness — is tough, especially when using several semiconductors. But moving from CIS to CIGS “is really not that big of a transition,” Birkmire said. 

The big transition, instead, is to become serious contenders in the market. And that competition has just begun.

To watch a video interview with Solar Frontier America's Greg Ashley, where he discusses the points made above and more, play the video below.

Ucilia Wang is a California-based freelance writer who covers renewable energy technologies and policies. She was the associate editor at Greentech Media.

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