NRG embraces CIGS solar tech

Despite the struggles of many of the next-gen solar companies using copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) to make solar panels, the technology continues to trickle into solar projects in the U.S. Solar Frontier, the largest manufacturer of CIGS panels, announced Wednesday that it’s shipped 13.2 MW to NRG Solar (s NRG), which is evolving from being a buyer of solar power projects to a developer.

Solar Frontier could very well end up doing what First Solar (s FSLR) has done for cadmium-telluride solar panels: convince distributors and project developers that an emerging technology can provide good returns.

Solar Frontier signed the deal with NRG last December and shipped the panels this month. It’s a good-size volume, considering some CIGS solar manufacturers produced no more than double that within the entire year of 2011. When Nanosolar announced a new CEO last month, it said its cumulative shipment from mid-2010 was 10 MW.

Neither Solar Frontier nor NRG would say which project(s) will use the panels. NRG Solar is part of NRG Energy, which owns a lot of power plants that run on fossil fuels. NRG has been particularly aggressive in expanding its renewable energy holdings (see a list of NRG’s solar projects). It has been buying solar power projects already developed by others, such as First Solar, SunPower and BrightSource Energy, but it also has gotten into the project development business as well.

NRG bought a solar project developer, Solar Power Partners, late last year. It recently formed a joint venture with Chinese polysilicon producer GCL-Poly Energy Holdings. The press release about the joint venture said GCL already had supplied 70 MW of “PV equipment” to NRG since last quarter, but both companies refused to describe the types of equipment. NRG said it’s got “more than 2,000 MW” of solar projects under development or construction across the American southwest.

Leading CIGS maker

The Japan-based Solar Frontier, part of Showa Shell, leaped over other CIGS rivals in production capability when it brought online a 900 MW Kunitomi factory in 2011; it already was running two smaller factories totaling 80 MW before that. As we mentioned in a previous post, Solar Frontier achieved an impressive feat of completing Kunitomi and starting production by the timeline it set, something that many CIGS startups have a lot of trouble achieving. But then, Solar Frontier also took a while to get here and has enjoyed the support of a corporate giant.

The company recently announced a deal to supply up to 150 MW to enXco for a project in California and said it already had shipped 26 MW last quarter. Solar Frontier also is making solar panels for GE (under the GE brand), and last month GE (s GE) said it sold 23 MW of CIGS panels to Invenergy for the Grand Ridge Solar project now under construction in Illinois. Last September, the CIGS panel maker said it was set to ship around 30 MW to India for installations by the end of 2011.

It’s not hard to see why project developers would prefer to buy from a better established manufacturer, particularly one with a large production capacity and the backing of an energy giant. They want reliable suppliers who offer competitive prices, ship on-time and deliver panels that perform as promised. If Solar Frontier can accomplish this, then it will broaden the market’s acceptance of CIGS solar panels and maybe help fellow CIGS solar manufactures at the same time. The vast majority of the solar panels sold today use silicon to convert sunlight into electricity.

Solar Frontier has declined to divulge its manufacturing costs or the pricing of its solar panels, so it’s hard to gauge how it has fared in a global market that has seen a glut of solar panels and plummeting prices in the past year. Many companies have filed for bankruptcy or shuttered some of their factories. Industry giants such as First Solar, Suntech Power and Trina Solar all have seen declining profits or posting losses.

But then, Solar Frontier can afford to weather the tough time. Smaller companies funded by venture capital?  Not so much.

Photos courtesy of Solar Frontier