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No End In Sight? The Struggle of Solar Equipment Makers

The solar cell and panel manufacturing business isn't showing clear signs of recovery, and that has taken a toll on those who develop the equipment to make the factories run.

Tokyo Electron announced Friday that it has broken up a joint venture with Sharp for developing machines for making amorphous silicon thin films. The two companies formed the alliance back in 2008 and came up with chemical vapor deposition tools.

Back then, amorphous silicon thin films still seemed like a promising technology, when startups and larger rivals were announcing ambitious plans to build factories. But there were also hot debates about the technology’s chances of making it big. A former photovoltaic program manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Tom Surek, told the audience of a solar conference in 2009 that the costs and the anticipated price declines for amorphous silicon — as well as copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) thin films — made those technologies uncompetitive.

And here we are today. Neither amorphous silicon nor CIGS plays a significant role in the gigawatt world of solar business. Venture-backed Signet Solar, an amorphous silicon thin film startup, finally filed for bankruptcy, two years after it shuttered the operation, reported the San Francisco Business Journal this week.

Centrotherm, which has worked on standardized CIGS thin film manufacturing, filed for bankruptcy in July this year.

Tokyo Electron hasn’t given up on amorphous silicon thin film though. Earlier this week, the company said it had completed the purchase of Oerlikon Solar, the Swiss firm that was Applied Materials’ chief rival. Applied Materials stopped selling its SunFab line in 2010 to focus on catering to makers of crystalline silicon solar cells. Earlier this month, Applied said it needed to pull back its solar investments even more than it previously anticipated, though it has yet to provide details.

Applied’s other big rival, GT Advanced Technologies, meanwhile, is pushing hard to expand into non-solar markets. The company just bought Twin Creeks Technologies for a cool $10 million and plans to use Twin Creeks’ technology not just for solar but also for making LED chips and scratch-resistant screens for consumer electronics such as smart phones.

“If you don’t plant seeds, your farm shrinks,” GT’s CEO, Tom Gutierrez, told financial analysts earlier this month.

Twin Creeks had raised nearly $100 million when I wrote about the launch of its equipment to make ultra-thin silicon wafers in March this year. While making super thin wafers can cut costs, the savings aren’t as significant these days. The prices for silicon were falling quickly during the time when Twin Creeks was finalizing its equipment design and ready it for the commercial rollout.

Investors will be hard pressed to put money into solar equipment development like what had been done with Twin Creeks, which is too bad because photovoltaic technology has a long way to go to improve how well it can convert sunlight into electricity. 

Lead image: Black stormy clouds via Shutterstock

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