The GreenStalk

Five Solar Debates: the Thin-film Race

Posted in Solar by Paul Grana on June 17, 2010

These are exciting times for the solar industry.  There has been a ton of innovation, a ton of investment, and it’s finally time to see who can make good on their promises.  But many of the best competitions require an insider’s understanding of the industry.  I’m going to try to change that.

This is the beginning of a five-post series where I will frame some of the key battles that are playing out right now in the solar industry.  Almost like a scouting report for a football game.  And the first topic is:

The Thin-film Horse Race: Who will emerge first to challenge First Solar?

The debate

Thin-film solar modules are dramatically cheaper than silicon modules.  You only need to look at First Solar’s numbers (costs under $0.90/watt) to see the proof.  However, they are challenging to manufacture.  There have been six thin-film startups (see table below) that have raised over $100MM in venture funding, assembled world-class management teams, and still have not yet been able to ramp up their manufacturing facilities.  But they are close.  So the question is: which company will figure it out first?

This is actually a battle of manufacturing technologies:

Company Manufacturing Technology Investors

Thermal Sublimation Doll Capital Management, Technology Partners, GLG Partners, The Invus Group

Field-Assisted Simultaneous Synthesis and Transfer (basically, evaporating two films, and then sandwiching them together) NEA, Morgan Stanley, Noventi Ventures, Paladin Capital Group, Yellowstone Capital, Sequel Venture Partners

Sputtering Kleiner Perkins, Firelake Capital, Vantage Point, Atel Ventures, Bessemer, Leaf Clean Energy, Atlas Venture, Garage Technology Ventures, Passport Capital

Ink Deposition Mohr Davidow, Firelake Capital, Capricorn, U.S. Venture Partners, Benchmark Capital, Riverstone Holdings, The Carlyle Group

Electroplating Crosslink Capital, Hudson Clean Energy, Musea Ventures, Firsthand Capital, Convexa Capital

Ink Deposition RockPort Capital, CMEA, U.S. Venture Partners, Virgin Green Fund, Argonaut Private Equity, Redpoint Ventures

What will determine the winners?

The key to winning this race is all about “manufacturability”: the ability to deposit a very thin semiconductor with complete uniformity, and then repeat that a million times, so that the millionth looks just like the first.  This is way harder than it seems: materials build up on the equipment, small errors compound into big ones, and things that should be repeatable are never that easy.

Also, there is a big difference between having the capacity and having a running production line.  It only takes money to buy the equipment, but it takes a lot of good engineering to get it running well.

So ultimately, these companies are constrained by their ability to manufacture, more than their customers’ willingness to buy their products.

Success is subjective, but I define it as manufacturing at a 100 megawatt-per-year run rate.  In comparison, First Solar recently crossed the 1 gigawatt (1,000 megawatts) capacity mark.

My opinion

This is a common debate among solar followers, and nobody know who will emerge first.  I think Miasole and Abound are at the head of the class, and closest to scaling to 100MW and beyond.  [Note: I used to work at Abound, so I may be biased.]  This is a slight underdog pick, as Solyndra and Nanosolar have more money and higher profiles.  Think of it as the NY Yankees (Solyndra) versus the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (Miasole & Abound): they are close, in spite of having a smaller budget.  Ultimately, time will tell who wins.

In the meantime, I’ll keep posting news stories below so we can all watch as these companies scale up.  Check back from time to time, as I’ll keep posting relevant news.

News:

Miasole: 22MW expected shipments in 2010, 6/10/2010

Abound Solar: 24-30MW run rate, off a line with 65MW capacity, 5/21/2010

Miasole: fab (at full uptime) has capacity of 75MW, 5/12/2010

Nanosolar: 640MW capacity in Germany (but no claims of running the line), 3/22/2010

SoloPower: working on a 60MW fab, which will be producing in 2011, 2/18/2010

HelioVolt: fab will have 20MW capacity (no guidance on timing, though), 1/7/2009

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3 Responses

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  1. Tim Gu said, on June 19, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    Any thoughts on Vinod Khosla’s recent dissertation on thin-film? : http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/what-really-matters-in-thin-film-solar-startups/N3/

  2. Chris Edgette said, on July 16, 2010 at 10:13 am

    Paul,

    What about Global Solar? Ascent? AQT?

    The fact that DARPA awarded Global was pretty interesting.

    -Chris

  3. […] Five Solar Debates: the Efficiency Race Posted in Solar by Paul Grana on August 16, 2010 CdTe and CIGS are the two new kids on the block for thin-film solar.  Both technologies promise rock-bottom manufacturing prices, and respectable efficiencies (10% or greater).  First Solar’s CdTe modules have given them a $10Bn market cap and pole position in the industry, while a number of high-flying CIGS and CdTe startups chase them. […]


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