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CIGS Solar PV Roundup: Fundings, Expansions, And Cutbacks

It's been a surprisingly busy week in the field of thin-film solar PV, specifically for the variety known as CIGS (copper-indium-gallium-selenide), and it spans the spectrum from positive (new funding and expansions) to not so upbeat (restructuring, missed payments, and acquisitions).

That any solar technology firm can obtain funding these days is notable; and particularly so for the much-challenged thin-film sector, and most especially CIGS given its history and lack of scaled-up success besides Japan's Solar Frontier. CIGS' initial attraction was its promise of lower-cost manufacturing potential, both in materials and in its streamlined roll-to-roll manufacturing process. Unfortunately solar-silicon prices evaporated to erase the former advantage, c-Si manufacturing has become much more streamlined and standardized while CIGS remains a very customized technology; and CIGS' lower conversion efficiencies haven't kept pace with c-Si — Miasole is the current CIGS module record-holder at 15.7 percent, vs. 20-22+ percent for the industry's best-performing c-Si modules. [Update 7/15: TSMC also claims a 15.7 percent champion CIGS module confirmed by TUV SUD.] And the CIGS landscape has been one of turmoil, from flameouts (Abound Solar and Solyndra) to buyouts (MiaSolé and Solibro, both bought by China's Hanergy.)

One thing that CIGS has going for it, notes Lux Research senior analyst Fatima Toor, is that there is increased interest in a more distributed global manufacturing plan for solar PV, which basically means not relying on everything being made in mainland China. CIGS' value chain is "relatively simple" and can be done on a turnkey line from substrate to module. CIGS also doesn't rely on cadmium, which is a sticking point for rival thin-film solar PV technology cadmium telluride (CdTe) and its similarly sole market leader, First Solar.

And speaking of Solar Frontier, it's been a key beneficiary of Japan's domestic solar sector surge. The company recently restarted its 60-MW capacity Miyazaki 2 plant, which opened in 2009 but was suspended late last year, to focus on conventional thin-film CIS modules for residential use, while prepping to accommodate a new type of module expected to be ramped into production later this year. Last month Solar Frontier debuted a 14.6 percent efficient "champion" module, which it claims is on par with efficiencies in widely available polycrystalline silicon modules on the market (assuming an average of around 15 percent efficiency for c-Si). The company has "an accelerated outlook" for ramping the technology to mass production at its Kunitomo factory, which earlier this year was pumping out CIS modules exceeding 13 percent conversion efficiency; it already has a 17.8-percent-efficient CIS module (aperture area) and a 19.7-percent-efficient cadmium-free CIS solar cell.

Without further ado, here's what we've seen in the CIGS sector over the past week or two: Ascent Solar going to Asia, HelioVolt getting more investments, SoloPower cutting deeper and retrenching in Oregon, and Nanosolar getting out of CIGS entirely.

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Ascent Solar Adds Investors, Eyes Chinese JV

Ascent Solar is the latest CIGS firm to embrace an Asian investment. After recently taking on new investors, including "a high-net-worth private investor in Asia," the company is setting up a joint venture with the Chinese city of Suqian in northeastern Jiangsu Province to make its CIGS PV modules on flexible thin films. The deal includes some generous terms including cash, a rent-free facility, and a range of incentives and buyout options. Victor Lee, Ascent's president/CEO, stated that there are vast opportunities in China's enormous consumer base and contract manufacturing sector; chairman Amit Kumar echoed that the deal also will provide numerous sources of cash flow, including control over real estate rights.

Essentially the company is removing one of the lines from its production facility, where capacity was "underutilized," and reassembling it in China, clarified Ascent marketing manager Justin R. Jacobs. There won't be any changes to the production capabilities and processes in Colorado and no headcount adjustments, he added; and only production capabilities are going to China, "we're not moving any R&D that way."

Ascent had a 30-MW (nameplate) facility and a separate R&D site in the greater Denver area, but in the past few months these have been consolidated together into the Thornton, CO production site, Jacobs noted. The company's top NREL-verified champion module is 11.7 percent conversion efficiency, he claimed, which was done back in 2009; the company's 2012 annual report indicates a somewhat more recent (December 2010) internal mark of 12.1 percent efficiency. Actual production-module efficiencies, however, are "typically in the 9 range," he said. He wouldn't offer any insight into Ascent's cost/W metrics.

Ascent was formed in October 2005 to develop a flexible thin-film CIGS solar PV technology on polyamide plastic using a roll-to-roll process, originally devised at Martin Marietta Aerospace and spinoff ITN Energy Systems. In mid-2011 the company did a strategic about-face to target its flexible modules at specialty applications including portable electronics, such as solar-assisted chargers for iPhones and similar devices. (Shortly thereafter the company landed hundreds of millions of dollars from China's TFG Radiant Group, which now owns roughly a third of the company.) Among the technology's selling points is its durability (plastic, not aluminum or steel), its monolithic integration of cells into the module, and that different module types and sizes can be accommodated on the same production line or even the same production run.

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CIGS Solar PV Firm HelioVolt Scores More Funding from Korean Backer

HelioVolt, which started up a decade ago and focused on CIGS (copper-indium-gallium-selenide) solar PV technology, has quietly pulled down another batch of funding from its new Korean benefactors. The new funding is said to be "intended to support factory expansion activities," according to a short press release.

Like many early thin-film companies, HelioVolt has raised an impressive amount of funding to date. In 2005 the company secured its first round of $8 million in funding, and then nailed down a $100 million Series B round in late 2007 from a raft of venture capital/private equity backers, and pledged to build a 20-MW manufacturing plant in Austin, TX. But by 2010 the company took on more debt to keep going.

In the fall of 2011, HelioVolt landed a $50 million equity investment from Korean "chaebol" SK Group (aka conglomerates or multinational), one of the earlier crop of solar companies to secure a financial lifeline from a deep-pocketed Asian conglomerate. SK's backing obviously gives HelioVolt extremely deep pockets and a wide network of know-how in energy, engineering, manufacturing, and product development. Last December HelioVolt added a little more than $12.1 million in debt financing from four investors. And now the company says in another SEC filing that it has raised $9.5 million in a new round of debt financing, half of an intended $19 million offering.

HelioVolt says its "glass-in" CIGS manufacturing process is a simpler and optimized two-step process compared with other CIGS flavors (lower temperature, and eliminates cell cutting/testing/binning/stringing) and enables monolithic module circuit integration, better long-term reliability, and ultimately lower cost per Watt. In 2010 the company produced an NREL-verified 11.8 percent-efficient module; here the company claims a roadmap to 16 percent efficiency by 2014. Last summer HelioVolt announced what was reportedly a 13.5 percent efficient module; its Web site claims "module efficiencies are approaching 14 percent with cell efficiencies ranging between 15-16 percent."

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Nanosolar: New Swiss Ownership Giving Up CIGS, Embracing C-Si

Nanosolar's version of CIGS uses aluminum foils, on a roll-to-roll process with metal wrapthrough back-contacts and a printed transparent top electrode. (Printed CIGS, vs. vacuum-based CIGS processes such as sputtering deposition, means lower manufacturing costs.) Lab devices were claimed to be at an NREL-certified 17.1 percent conversion efficiency.

Like a lot of solar startups in the heady early-2000s, Nanosolar raised a lot of money — in the neighborhood of $500 million, including another $70 million last summer — but had to scale back its plans, a familiar refrain among solar start-ups. It did manage to land some big orders in 2011, and built out a handful of megawatt-scale projects in the U.S. and Europe between 2011-2012. But earlier this year Nanosolar underwent mass layoffs (170 to be exact), necessitating a WARN notice in California.

And now the firm is being sold off to an unidentified Swiss investor, which will shift the company's technology and strategy away from CIGS to two new crystalline silicon-based products: high-efficiency solar panels for utilities, and building-integrated products for residential markets. Both of which will be produced out of Nanosolar GmbH's module assembly factory in Luckenwalde, Germany; equipment and assets from the company's California solar cell factory are to be sold off starting next month.

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SoloPower Back on the Hot Seat With More Restructuring

SoloPower reportedly has defaulted on a $10 million payment owed to the state of Oregon, just two months after narrowly missing another payment deadline and avoiding possible foreclosure. Earlier this spring SoloPower suspended its operations in North Portland, and laid off workers and sold equipment at its San Jose, California facility.

SoloPower had been building out its new facility in Portland, Oregon, to open in late 2012 and potentially top 400 MW of output with 450 workers. Last spring the company announced an NREL-certified 13.4 percent efficient (aperture) flexible CIGS panel, made in the San Jose plant, a leap from a prior 11.2 percent efficiency mark attributed to unspecified "new processes" implemented into its roll-to-roll production line.

SoloPower received a $197 million US DoE loan guarantee in mid-2011 — which it claims has not drawn upon — as well as tens of millions of dollars in city and state incentives from loans to tax credits.

Lead image: Cowboy on top of mountain at sunset, via Shutterstock

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