May 22, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

New solar technology hits snags

Getting CIGS solar panels to market is turning out to be a little tougher than expected.

Some companies that hope to make thin, inexpensive solar cells out of copper indium gallium selenide, or CIGS, have had to delay commercial production of their products or change their product line.

"We're trying to give birth to a new process. The trouble is that we don't know how long the gestation period is," said Dave Pearce, CEO of Miasole, which has received more than $56 million in venture funding and is one of the more prominent CIGS companies. "But nothing has changed in terms of the fundamentals of the technology."

The snags largely arise, the companies say, from the difficulties of bringing a new technology to market.

In the solar world, there's a major battle brewing between makers of silicon solar panels and those who want to produce CIGS panels. Commercial crystalline silicon solar panels--the kind seen on rooftops--can convert between 15 percent and 22 percent of the sunlight that strikes them into electricity.

Even the best CIGS panels are below that. CIGS backers, however, say their cells will be cheaper. A shortage of solar-grade silicon that started in 2004 has caused manufacturing prices to rise.

Silicon cell factories are also expensive and use the same sort of equipment found in LCD TV factories. By contrast, CIGS cells, in theory, can be manufactured almost like plastic wrap or foil in a roll-to-roll process.

A factory that can produce 30 megawatts worth of silicon solar panels might cost close to $100 million. CIGS manufacturers say they can build factories for $25 million that will produce their 25-megawatt panels.

Miasole's issue? The company can produce 5-square-foot sheets of CIGS solar cells that can hit the company's target efficiency of 8 percent to 10 percent on its research-and-development production lines, Pearce said. (The efficiency rating refers to how much of the sunlight the panel can convert into electricity.) However, on its commercial production lines, Miasole is seeing efficiencies of 4 percent to 6 percent, with some high spots of 9 percent mixed in.

"They aren't at the level of efficiency we want," he said. "You've got four elements (copper, indium, gallium and selenide) that do not want to be together."

Pearce said the company will likely enter into volume production in October--later than expected. In September 2006, Miasole had said it expected to achieve revenues of $100 million by the end of 2007. That probably won't happen now, Pearce added.

Not all bad news
Meanwhile, DayStar Technologies said earlier this month that it will initially produce CIGS solar cells on glass rather than on metal foils. That's a big switch: one of the major selling points of CIGS is that it can be produced on cheap, light substrates that can be incorporated into building materials. Until now, DayStar had touted its TerraFoil solar cells on a titanium-based foil.

"The market for a flexible CIGS module is viewed as a large potential market for the future. However, there still remain significant technical challenges in product packaging that inhibit early market penetration," the company stated in its first-quarter earnings release.

Not everyone is having issues. Nanosolar, which hopes to print CIGS cells, is putting out solar cells on its pilot line and will start to produce commercial volumes toward the end of the year, said CEO Martin Roscheisen. That prediction would fit the original schedule.

While the chemical formula for CIGS between different manufacturers is somewhat similar, the manufacturing processes are different. Miasole and DayStar sputter the CIGS material onto a substrate. The process is similar to the way hard-drive makers sputter magnetic particles onto disks.

By contrast, SoloPower will electroplate CIGS onto substrates in a roll-to-roll process. HelioVolt, Shell Solar and other CIGS companies, meanwhile, have their own twists on the production process. (Some also leave out the gallium and make CIS cells.)

In research labs, scientists have applied the CIGS materials in a solution and evaporated off the excess.

The production delays also reflect one of the underlying realities of alternative energy. Unlike Web 2.0 companies, these companies require massive factories, which take time and money to build. In September 2006, Pearce said Miasole would have the factory capacity installed by the end of the 2007 that would, once tuned and optimized, be capable of producing 200 megawatts worth of solar panels a year. (In 2004, Miasole said it expected to begin mass production in 2005).

The company has installed two production lines in its Santa Clara, Calif., facility that will be capable of producing a combined 50 megawatts worth of solar cells a year when fully optimized. Miasole also has ordered the parts for two more production lines.

The goal now is to hit the 200-megawatt production mark by the end of 2008.

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10 comments

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a question...
What I didn't see in the article is the cost per KWh for these products. Solar is a green power, but current cells are expensive. The break-even point for a solar system is about 15 years. A solar system combined with wind power works well and can give you a quicker return on investment. Even so, they are expensive with many years before you see the return on investment. Their most practical uses is for homes with no access to a power grid. One of the strongest selling points is they are green technology and if utility prices keep rising, you will have made a good investment.
Posted by Seaspray0 (9714 comments )
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Business Policy
I think they keep the cost per KWh secret so the installers can charge whatever they want. I think the next step needed in this industry is going to be low cost installation companies. Right now the installation costs have their own payback period.
Posted by jamesmedina (3 comments )
Link Flag
an answer........
the break-even point can be greatly reduced through Government Subsidy. The Australian Federal Government will introduce such a subsidy in the coming year, up to $8,000 (Aus.) per household. If the system costs say $13,000 the break-even point might be as low as 5 years (based on a cost to the householder of $5,000).

Utility prices on the Eastern Seaboard of Australia will continue to rise.

The Snowy River Hydro Electric Scheme is currently holding only 6% of it's water capacity and is using Fossil Fuels to spin its Turbines.

Sydney's water storage hasn't been over 40% full for years.

I think we now have some strong selling points.

Regards.
Posted by m.o.t.u. (96 comments )
Link Flag
Rough approximation
An exact answer isn't going to be possible since there are dozens of variables involved here, many of which can't be accurate stated since they depend on WHERE the solar panel is installed. However the company is hoping for a reduction by more than 1/3rd (on a per-watt basis) for the cost of the solar cells themselves.

Now, figure that the solar cells make up probably 40-50% of the total cost of a residential solar system, we're talking about reducing the cost of that portion of the bill by 60-70%, or a total cost reduction of 25-35%.

However there's an important caveat here. These solar cells, by being only half as efficient, will require twice as much area for the same amount of power. This means that you're installation and maintenance costs are going to go up slightly. More importantly though, you quite simply need twice as much area. If you would only have half (or less) of your roof covered with standard solar cells than this isn't a problem, just cover the whole roof. However if you need to buy a bigger roof (ie bigger house), then you can pretty much stick a fork in these cells, they aren't going to cut it!

The above is particularly important if you're looking at solar power from a commercial perspective where the cost of the land could well be a significant expense (in a household system you can usually consider the roof of your house to be a sunk cost and therefore not counted as an expense).

Anyway, the long story short? It depends. In some situations these could be cheaper by up to ~35%, in other situations they could be much more expensive.

Personally I think the best use of these panels will be for the "solar panel shingle" style of setup. Your land costs and a lot of your installation costs are already covered (since you've got a house and it needs shingles anyway), it's only the extra cost of solar panel shingles vs. standard ones and the associated equipment (wiring, inverter and 2-way power meter) that are needed. Large scale utility company deployment, on the other hand, is likely to be the worst use of these cells.
Posted by Hoser McMoose (182 comments )
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So what's the problem?
"A factory that can produce 30 megawatts worth of silicon solar panels might cost close to $100 million. CIGS manufacturers say they can build factories for $25 million that will produce their 25-megawatt panels."
.3 megawatts/$1 mil. vs 1megawatt/$1mil. Tricky math.
Posted by suyts (824 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The problem? Efficiency.
You have a limited amount of space on your roof.
So you want to get the most "bang for your buck".
More efficient panels means faster ROI.

But if you have a large area, like an industrial complex, or a farm with a lot of buildings/sheds and shade areas, larger but less efficient panels make more sense.

For example, suppose I want to put up an electric cow fence. I really don't care if the solar panel to help recharge the battery is 3 sq feet or 12 sq feet. (Not real numbers just an example.)

So you have to consider what is your application when you go to purchase a solar panel.
Posted by dargon19888 (412 comments )
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Answer and question
There is no doubt that utility rates will continue to rise.
One question, as I did not see anything listed in this article relating: What about the warranty on these panels? Most of the major manufacturers of PV panels have a warranty of 20-25 yrs. This technology really has yet to establish itself in any sense. I know that if I were to make an investment of 20k+, it better not be breaking down in five years. And with that much VC on the line, what kind of viability do these companies really have? Will they even be around to honor thier warranties? Though these technologies are promising, I think that anyone who is seriously considering a solar investment should consider these factors.
Posted by shera89 (19 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Efficiency of solarcellls
I think remembering in one of previous articles that Boeing's Spectrolab subsidiary had designed solarcells made of sillicon which,thanks to a concentrator, had reached an efficiency near 33% and could be improved to the 40% limit. In that case will CIGS panels with a maximum efficiency predicted around 22% ever make it to the market?
Posted by quincho (7 comments )
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