New Hampshire, USA -- 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.