The World's #1 Renewable Energy Network for News, Information, and Companies.
Untitled Document

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

Untitled Document

RELATED ARTICLES

Listen Up: Vampires Sucking Power from your House

Barry Cinnamon Here’s a nightmare for you: at night, when you’re asleep and you think things are quiet, there are vampires sucking power out of your house and increasing your electric bill. The fact of the matter is that every plugged in ...
Ucilia Wang is a California-based freelance journalist who writes about renewable energy. She previously was the associate editor at Greentech Media and a staff writer covering the semiconductor industry at Red Herring. In addition to Renewable En...

CURRENT MAGAZINE ISSUE

Volume 18, Issue 4
1507REW_C11

STAY CONNECTED

To register for our free
e-Newsletters, subscribe today:

SOCIAL ACTIVITY

Tweet the Editors! @megcichon @jennrunyon

FEATURED PARTNERS



EVENTS

5th Annual Hydro Plant Maintenance

Join maintenance professionals to discuss the challenges in maintenance ...

Presenting at Infocast's Utility Scale Solar Summit 2015

Oct. 21, 2015 4:30-5:15pm Albie Fong, National Director, Solar Frontier ...

Utility Scale Solar Summit 2015

Oct. 21, 2015 4:30-5:15pm Albie Fong, National Director, Solar Frontier ...

COMPANY BLOGS

Compression: That’s What It's All About

With Intersolar already 2 weeks behind us (how did that happen...

Behind Every Good Decision

When something about your business isn’t working, you set out to c...

Clean Energy Patents Maintain High Levels in First Quarter, Solar L...

U.S. patents for Clean Energy technologies from the first quarter of 201...

NEWSLETTERS

Renewable Energy: Subscribe Now

Solar Energy: Subscribe Now

Wind Energy: Subscribe Now

Geothermal Energy: Subscribe Now

Bioenergy: Subscribe Now  

 

FEATURED PARTNERS