FAQ: Thin-Film Solar

Thin fil,The thin-film solar business is a lot like the business of printing money. Well, sort of. Thin-film solar is produced using a roll-to-roll manufacturing process that is similar to the one used to print paper — and by, extension, money. Nanosolar started to roll the panels off its presses this week, prompting us to take a serious look at the thin-film market. So here are some basic pointers for one of the most promising areas in cleantech.

What is Thin-Film Solar?

Thin-film solar technologies often use non-silicon semiconductor materials including copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS) to create photovoltaic cells that convert sunlight into electricity. Without the expensive and often sparse silicon, the cells are cheaper in terms of materials costs. The non-silicon materials can also be printed on flexible or light substances, which can create new applications for solar. But thin films, aren’t yet as efficient as silicon-based solar, and can remain pricey due to their high production costs.

Key Players

Private Companies:

Nanosolar — The five-year-old company started to manufacture and ship panels this week.

Miasole — The company, which has over $100 million in funding and named a new CEO back in September, is having difficulty getting their CIGS cells scaled up.

Konarka — Using polymers to make their so-called “power plastic,” the Lowell, Mass., company has raised $105 million. Ex-CEO Berke told us they hope to get product to market by late 2008.

Uni-Solar — A wholly owned subsidiary of Energy Conversion, Uni-Solar makes about 28 MW of thin-film, peel-and-stick triple junction amorphous silicon PV a year from their one production plant.

HelioVoltAnother startup with over $100 million in capital, the Austin, Texas-based company plans to start production of its CIGS solar technology in late 2008.

SoloPower — New to the game, SoloPower raised $30 million this summer. They plan on using a proprietary electrochemical process to manufacture their CIGS PV at a lower cost compared with other CIGS and silicon-based methods.

PowerFilm Solar — With its various integrated PV systems, this company is trying to put their solar in everything, from metal roofs to membrane systems to architectural fabric. They’re even working with the U.S. to make solar-powered tents. They appear to be using a rather first generation thin film technology, and according to their website they use silicon for the panels. The company was founded back in 1988.

SolexantDubbed a “secretive solar cell developer,” by VentureBeat, Solexant raised $4.3 million this summer for its nanostructured solar cells, which are said to collect energy from the entire solar spectrum and will be manufactured via roll-to-roll methods.

PrimeStar Solar — General Electric recently took a minority interest in this company, which uses the more mature technology of cadmium telluride (CdTe) to make its cells.

Innovalight — The company’s technology uses silicon nanoparticles in a liquid silicon ink; it has raised $28 million for its silicon ink printing technology.

Public Companies:

First Solar (FSLR) — First Solar’s panels are modular and are aimed at large-scale installations. Shares of the company, which has led the way in proving the scalability of CdTe technology, have skyrocketed since their IPO in November of 2006, ending Wednesday’s session at $247.98.

DayStar Technologies (DSTI) — DayStar pulled in nearly $68 million in October from a follow-on offering of 15 million shares of common stock. The company is using the money to build a 25MW manufacturing line for its CIGS solar cells.

Ersol (ERSLF) — With four manufacturing plants in the U.S. and Germany, Ersol just signed an agreement with Wacker Chemie for silicon production.

Venture Firms:

How Big is the Market?

The solar industry as a whole is expected to grow to $51 billion in 2015 from $11 billion in 2005, according to a projection by Clean Edge Inc., a market research firm focused on clean technology — and the thin-film solar market is forecast to grow to account for 20 percent of the overall solar market in 2010 from just 8 percent in 2006, according to GreenTechMedia. Thin-film PV alone is expected to grow to $7.2 billion by 2015 from just over $1 billion today, according to research firm NanoMarkets.

Help us flesh out this resource by keeping us up-to-date on any new thin-film solar companies, as well as any new investments.