HelioVolt CEO Talks Funding, Fears, Future

HelioVolt is the latest thin-film solar startup to rake in a multi-million dollar funding round. As we reported yesterday, The Austin, Texas-based company just snagged $77 million in Series B funding in a round led by the Paladin Capital Group and the Masdar Clean Tech Fund.

We spoke with HelioVolt CEO B.J. Stanbery to get his thoughts on his recent VC financing, his fiercest competition, and the challenges that might lie ahead en route to commercial success.

Q: What was the primary goal for your latest round of funding?

A: Its primary use will be to build our first production factory. We’ve developed the prototype products [and] we’ve gotten good yields and good performance. We are ready to begin the process of scaling it up and that simply costs more money. This is real manufacturing, not like some programmers getting the right set of bytes in a row.

Q: There’s a lot of research and investment activity going on in thin film solar right now. Your competitors Nanosolar and Miasole also use the same CIGS materials that you use. They have already raised over $100 million and $50 million, respectively, and yet they’ve struggled with manufacturing delays. How is your company any different, and why won’t you be susceptible to such delays?

A: The most significant factor is the deep experience of my team. I’ve been involved in CIGS technology since 1983, soon after it was invented. Our key differentiator is the manufacturing process that I invented in 2001. The key technology innovation that has enabled the success of First Solar was a rapid manufacturing process for Cadmium Telluride. It is that, a rapid manufacturing process for CIGS, which is our key innovation. We developed a process that can make the thin film CIGS layer in 3 minutes, that’s a factor of 10 to 100 compared to [other] methods that have been demonstrated to me.

Q: Why do you think there have been so many delays when it comes to manufacturing thin film solar?

A: I think a lot of people who do not understand CIGS think it can be manufactured like a conventional semiconductor. It’s not. It has a lot more in common with high-temperature superconductors than with traditional semiconductors. You need to have a realistic manufacturing schedule, and to understand the material in order to develop a manufacturing process for it.

Q: How soon do you expect to start mass-producing thin film solar?

A: We expect to begin production in fall 2008 [AND] will ramp that up and get to full production in 2009. As you can see, we’re not being as aggressive as some people.

Q: Thin film solar is currently not as efficient as traditional crystalline silicon in how much sunlight the solar cells can convert into electricity. Are there are limits to thin film efficiency levels?

A: The problem with solar is not demonstrating efficiency, it’s getting manufacturing costs in high volume down. Performance intrigues technologists, but it’s not the real challenge. We’re constantly improving efficiency. It’s better than commercially available performance of Cadmium Telluride. We have good reason to believe based on our demonstrated performance, products delivered will be in the 10 to 12 percent range of efficiency.

Q: How much does the price of the thin film cells factor into the potential for commercial success of a company like yours? And, will thin film solar ever be cost-competitive with traditional crystalline solar?

A: You have to look at the system price when you want to consider the competitiveness of a given solar technology, not the price of module products. If you look at the overall costs of systems, half of the costs are wiring, power conditioning, and power conversion. When you’re comparing thin-film technologies, it’s important to look at it at a systems level. Our technology is suited for direct integration into building materials, it can be printed on glass plates, and incorporated into the kinds of window glass that are used in skyscrapers. If you’re replacing something they’re going to put in the building anyway, then the installation cost is no longer a marginal cost.

Q: With all the challenges of manufacturing a new technology, what is it that you’re worried about most that might influence the opportunities for your product?

A: In all honesty, I’m concerned about one thing – people have a tendency to lump thin film into one bucket. That’s incorrect because different thin-film technologies have different performance reliability characteristics. When somebody makes a product that is not reliable, that tends to be over generalized in people’s perceptions, and gives a bad name to everybody’s products.

Q: What sort of unreliability would cause this sort of perception of thin film solar?

A: CIGS is inherently stable, but all solar products have to be protected from environmental degradation effects. If you don’t package the products right they don’t deliver a 20-year lifetime.

Q: You focus mostly on putting your CIGS semiconductors onto glass substrates, why aren’t you concentrating on using plastic substrates for flexible thin film modules?

A: We can print onto other substrates, but when you have a high-rate manufacturing process like ours, the cost of products can be driven down to the level where the direct materials cost become dominate. The largest direct materials cost in thin film is whatever you put it on. There’s not a lot of materials known to humanity that are as highly commoditized as glass. It’s one of the cheapest things you can buy. Frankly, a lot of plastics are quite expensive. Also, the reliability of glass is proven.

Q: Of all the thin film companies working on putting a product on the market in the coming years, are there any that you see as your fiercest competitors?

A: I take First Solar very seriously as a competitor. They’ve been very successful in expanding production. We have a superior technology, but as you know, in the world markets, superior technology does not always win out by itself. There’s also a potentially competitive CIGS technology for manufacturing called Avancis. They’re based in Europe. Germany. That is a joint venture between Shell Solar and Saint-Gobain. They have a credible rapid manufacturing technology.