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List of Top 15 Global Solar Thin Film Companies – Who will Survive and Who Won’t

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Solar Thin Film Technology has been growing rapidly despite falling costs of the mainstream Photovoltaic Crystalline Silicon Technology.While a number of Weaker Hands in Thin Film have downed shutters,Thin Film Producers continue to grow and expand.The massive growth potential of Solar Energy makes it possible for both of these PV technologies to flourish.Thin Film Technology unlike c-Si has a number of variants.Amorphous Silicon (a-Si),Copper Indium Gallium Sulphide (CIGs) and Cadmium Tellurium (Cd-Te) are the 3 main types of Thin Film Technology.There are a number of manufacturers of all of these 3 types of Technology.CIGs Technology is said to have the most potential in improving efficiency and competing with c-Si,however Cd-Te is currently the top dog as the world’s biggest solar producer First Solar currently uses this technology.a-Si Technology is not that hot with low efficiencies however Oerlikon and Sharp are pushing ahead with developing this technology.Here is a list of the world’s top Thin Film Companies.

1) First Solar – First Solar is the only Solar Thin Film Manufacturer in the world and a benchmark for other thin film companies thinking of making it big.The company was promoted by Wal-Mart promoters and has seen remarkable growth in the last few.This US based company uses Cadmium Tellurium (Cd-Te) Technology and  is the lowest cost panel producer in the world today if you don’t include any penalty for low efficiency.Even if you penalize the Cd-Te Technology for its lower efficiency vis-a-vis the higher efficiency crystalline technology,First Solar is clearly the leader with a core cost of 74c/watt.The company has a roadmap of  reducing the cost to 52c/watt by 2014 and given its track record it seems quite achievable.There is little doubt about First Solar’s ability to survive and flourish due to its massive first mover advantage.

2) Sharp – Sharp,the Japanese Zaibatsu known more for its Electronics Products is also the world’s No 1 Company in terms Solar Module Revenues.Despite its leadership in c-Si Technology,it has shifted focus to a-Si thin film due to higher costs.Sharp has started shipping a-Si modules from its 1 GW capacity plant in Sakai.With its established distribution strengths and technological abilities in LCD Technology,Sharp is one company that can survive the c-Si onslaught.With most of the a-Si thin film competitors bankrupt or in a moribund state,Sharp can capitalize to completely capture this space.However the cost structure of Sharp is not clearly known right now to make a clear call on how this will turn out.Also a 10% efficiency while decent for a-Si technology fall far short of the 13% claims by CIGS start-ups like Miasole.

3) Solar Frontier - Solar Frontier is a subsidiary of Showa Shell Sekiyu and is listed on the Japanese Stock Exchange.The Company has big plans for the Solar Energy Market planning to increase its capacity by more than 10 times in 2011 to around 1 Gw in total.All its 3 plants are located in Miyazaki in Japan and uses previous plasma plant of Hitachi.Solar Frontier claims 11.5% efficiency for its CIS modules which are expected to go upto 14% by 2014.The Company is spending around $1 Billion in Capex for building the 1 GW capacity implying roughly $1 capex/watt which is not exactly cheap though not very expensive either.

4) MiasoleMiasole made a major splash announcing a record breaking 13.8% efficiency thin film module which it will ship in 2011.The company has also raised another $100 million in equity finance despite fall in its pre-IPO valution to $550 million from $1.2 billion earlier.Seems an attractive target for a takeover.

5)Solyndra – Solyndra has been  the most hyped startup in the crowded Solar Energy field and raised more than a Billion Dollars in Equity and Debt.Its proprietary CIGS cells on cylindrical tubes has been cited as path breaking American Research by US Administration.However its high costs and slow ramp up has raised a big question on its survival.It recently shut down its First Fab and puts off its IPO despite a $535 million Loan Grant from DOE

6) Q-Cells - Q-Cells has written off its investments in 2 of its thin film divisions -Calyxo (CdTe) and Sunfilm (aSi).Only Solibro (CIGS) division has survived the major restructuring of Q-Cells which saw a multi billion dollar loss in 2009 and resignation of its CEO.

7) Nanosolar – This secretive CIGs startup has big backers in the form of Google and others.The company is planning to build a massive plant in US but till now there has been little news about its commercial shipments,efficiency or costs.Remains to be seen if it manages to succeed or joins the long list of thin film deaths.

8) Abound Solar - Abound Solar which is a CdTe startup has also received a massive loan guarantee like Solyndra earlier.This money is going to be used to set up manufacturing facilities in Indiana and Colorado.Abound Solar has been heavily supported the the US government’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and is in the process of starting a 200 MW plant in Colorado.

9) General Electric - GE has invested in a Cadmium Tellurium Startup Prime Solar which is ramping up production.Note Cd-Te is the same technology which is used by First Solar.GE has said that it has managed to attain 15% efficiency on commercial glass.Don’t know how much of it is true since First Solar only manages around 12% efficiency despite around 10 years of dedicated R&D.However if GE can even manage to get near to that level then it would surely give First Solar a run for its money.GE has also tied up with Japanese Solar Frontier to market its CIGs based modules

10) TSMC- StionTSMC recently bought a 21% equity stake in CIGs startup Stion for $50 million.The partnership will involve TSMC licensing Stion’s technology and doing  joint research on further enhancing the technology.Stion has claimed that it has achieved a >13% efficiency and plans to increase it to 15% in the near future.TSMC has been quietly making further investments to build a large capacity in Taiwan using this technology.It recently bought module making equipment from another Taiwanese company and has also invested a substantial amount in constructing buildings and facilities for the new CIGs fab.TSMC has earlier invested in c-Si through a equity stake in Motech.

11) Masdar -Masdar PV the Abu Dhabi backed Renewable Energy company is facing problems with it its thin film business,recently firing top executives at  its German thin film division.It uses SunFab Technology which has been shuttered by Applied Materials.The company ships some thin film modules here and there but is no longer an important player.

12) Saint Gobain- Hyundai – Global Glass Giant Saint Gobain is expanding its presence in the Solar Energy Manufacturing by partnering with Hyundai Heavy Industries to build a CIGs plant in South Korea with a $198 mm investment.The 50:50 JV which will be known as Hyundai Avancis will be situated in South Korea which is one of the hottest Green Geographies in the world currently.

13) Ascent Solar – This US Based Company has a long history of making Thin Film Panels on Flexible Substances.The company is trying to survive against the onslaught of competition through strategic tie-ups with a number of companies around the world which will uses its Niche Technology.

14) Energy Conversion Devices – After First Solar,Energy Conversion Devices seemed the mostly likely viable company in Thin Film Technology.After a few quarters of profits in 2008,the company went into the red as its flexible a-Si modules failed to cut costs as fast as others.It has been shutting factories in the US and shifting to low cost locations.Still one of the biggest independent Thin Film Producers.Seems more likely that it will be bought out then survive independently.

15) Trony Solar - Trony Solar is the largest Solar Thin Film Producer in China and uses a-Si Technology to producer Solar Panels used mostly in Off-Grid Applications.The company uses its own custom made equipment and manages to get decent margins for its products.The company recently listed on the HK Stock Exchange.

Note Oerlikon is a major thin film equipment supplier which has been boasting of improved efficiencies at a low 50c/watt  cost while Applied Materials has shut down its SunFab equipment operations.

PG

Abhishek Shah

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