Solar maker HelioVolt still alive & hanging out in the backyard

UPDATED: Turns out Austin’s solar thin film maker HelioVolt, which has struggled to commercialize its technology over the years despite major funding, is still breathing, and has been settling for making tiny solar projects in its own backyard.

The latest is one is a 12.4 kilowatt system for utility Austin Energy, which is touting a “shop locally” mantra by installing a solar project with panels from its neighbor. The project is part of a pilot program by Austin Energy to lease rooftop space from businesses and nonprofit organizations for solar installations. Before that, last fall, HelioVolt talked about a 23 kilowatt installation at Texas A&M University.

Beyond that HelioVolt has yet to announce any big sales deals, at least not in recent years. HelioVolt seemed to be terminally ill when it announced last September that it had managed to line up an equity investment of $50 million from SK Group (the $50 million was part of an $85 million round).

HelioVolt’s founder, BJ Stanbery, told us then that the Korean investment will enable HelioVolt to improve its manufacturing technology and expand production beyond the small-scale 20 MW factory at its headquarters in Austin. One of HelioVolt’s investors, New Enterprise Associates, told Dow Jones that HelioVolt could be building its first large-scale factory in Korea.

The company, which has raised over $200 million since its inception, has stayed fairly quiet since then. In June, it announced the offering of a new set of solar panels.

How long that $85 million will last for HelioVolt and whether it will be able to compete at a time when solar panel prices have crashed remain to be seen. We’ve put in a call to HelioVolt to find out whether it might still be building a factory in Korea, and we will update the post if we hear back.

UPDATE: HelioVolt’s vice president of business operations, John Prater, told us that the company and SK are still actively planning that commercial-size factory, but the decisions on the location and size haven’t been made. “We are thrilled to have SK on board, and (SK’s involvement) eliminates a lot of uncertainties,” Prater said.

Lining up a big investor can really help a startup survive tough market conditions. MiaSole, another thin film startup, is looking for that financial rescue and hopes to announce something there within 90 days. But in the meantime, the company is laying off people in its manufacturing operation, the company said yesterday. MiaSole, located in the Silicon Valley, declined to disclose how many people are leaving.

HelioVolt’s solar panels use an ultra-thin layer of copper-indium-gallium-selenide for converting sunlight into electricity. The majority of the solar panels on the market today use a much thicker layer of silicon instead. HelioVolt is one of the startups that sought to use alternatives to silicon to make cheaper solar panels that use less materials. These companies attracted billions of dollars in venture capital because they promised to deliver low-cost solar panels at a time silicon was super expensive.

The price of silicon has dropped by over 10 fold since the mid-2000s. Meanwhile, silicon solar panel makers, particularly those from China, have built massive factories to reduce manufacturing costs and grab market share in ways that startups with limited funds just can’t compete effectively. Startups such as Solyndra and Abound Solar have gone bankrupt.

Even large companies with lots of money have had a hard time competing. GE recently suspended its plan to build a 400 MW factory to make cadmium-telluride solar panels.