The rapid drop in the prices of crystalline silicon PV modules also put pressure on competitors manufacturing thin-film PV modules. The potential for thin-film is large – the question is, which companies have the stamina to reach the goal?
Thin film solar panels account for roughly 20% of the solar market. One company, First Solar, accounts for about half of the thin film market. In November 2011 First Solar announced its cumulative PV module production has reached 5 GW since it was established in 2002. It has manufactured 66 million PV modules based on its cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin film technology. Only Suntech the giant Chinese crystalline silicon PV module manufacturer has produced more GWs of solar modules than that.
First Solar plans to increase its annual production capacity during 2012 to 3 GW. What’s more, First Solar has generated profits from thin film PV production – something few others have achieved. First Solar’s revenues were more than $1 billion in the third quarter of 2011, with a net income of almost $200 million.
The Japanese firm Solar Frontier with its CIGS (Cadmium Indium Gallium diSelenide) thin-film solar panel production has quietly built a strong second place position in the market. Solar Frontier produced over 570 MW of CIGS modules in 2011 and announced a $100 million plus agreement to supply 150 MW to a major energy project developer. This performance is far ahead of Solar Frontier’s nearest rivals Miasolé (60 MW) and Solibro (95 MW). It was also a surprise. Solar Frontier only produced 70 MW in 2010. Solar Frontier’s cells offer an efficiency of 12.2% and their goal is to reach 14% by 2014. In the lab, CIGS cells of almost 20% efficiency are possible. First Solar’s current cells offer around 11.7% efficiency. But CIGS is more complex to produce than First Solar’s Cdte thin film.
Nobody would claim that thin film PV is a mature market. There is very little standardization in production processes. Manufacturers of CIGS thin films use co-evaporation, printing, sputtering or electroplating-like processes – and their final products are just as varied. Major leaps forward in efficiency performances from modules in the laboratory or in production are regularly announced. But increasingly, the emphasis is on delivery, not potential.
“While most of the CIGS start-ups have at various times produced more hype than panels, Solar Frontier has quietly ramped up production and honed its efficiency,” according to GreenTechMedia. First Solar is also focusing down on its CdTe thin-film production costs. It has dropped plans to invest in the development of its own CIGS module.
Just over the horizon…
There is potential growth in the thin film sector. Lux Research predicts that the market for CIGS panels will nearly double in size to $2.35 billion by 2015. In October 2011, the US company Wintergreen Research was predicting the global thin film market, that had generated $2.9 billion in 2010, could grow spectacularly to $44 billion as early as 2017. While the European market demand has suffered, as prices drop, new markets are opening up in India and across Asia.
The advantages of thin film have been well rehearsed by its proponents. It is less reliant on silicon than traditional crystalline silicon cells, because it is only one hundredth of the thickness. The thin film is flexible (though some of the most successful recent modules are sandwiched in glass). The kilowatt hours that can be produced per kW of thin film PV cell over its lifetime also compare favorably to crystalline silicon cells. And, importantly, there is considerable opportunity to slash the production costs of thin film through automation.
But the rapid collapse in the prices for crystalline silicon modules has put a lot of pressure on thin film manufacturers. Some of the most promising pioneers in thin film manufacture are feeling the pressure. Q-Cells, a German manufacturer of CIGS thin film has seen its share value collapse. It is having to restructure its financing and has warned that it will not return to profitability until 2014. MiaSolé is laying off some of its American workforce. Some manufacturers have gone into bankruptcy. Others may disappear or be acquired by competitors or will have to enter strategic partnerships with companies with deep pockets. According to Lux Research, only a few of the present market players will make it.Log in to post comments