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Solar Thin Film Companies Dying like Flies in the face of Chinese c-Si module competition

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While the solar bankruptcies that are going on for the last year or so are nothing new, the pace has accelerated in recent times. With even the biggest thin film manufacturers, First Solar finding its products noncompetitive in the face of cheap Chinese c-Si solar modules, the smaller start ups are facing extinction. Even the older established companies are now declaring bankruptcy as they see no prospects even in the future. Odersun and Konarka are the two thin film companies who have gone down in recent times. In an earlier post, prediction of a second wave of thin film bankruptcies had been given with Suntech exiting the thin film game. That prediction is coming true with thin film companies giving up with no prospects of their ever being able to match the Chinese crystalline solar panel costs which are going down by a dramatic 15-20% each year. Coupled with low efficiency and low scale, these smaller companies despite their innovative technologies have no hope. Even consumers of Oerlikon’s a-Si technology have started closing their factories even as Oerlikon has sold its thin film division to Japanese semiconductor equipment heavyweight Tokyo Electron. Note Applied Materials has closed it’s a-Si division during the first wave of thin film bankruptcies in 2009 and 2010.

The field of thin film solar still has players mainly among the big industrial companies like Sharp,Solar Frontier with a few smaller survivors like Miasole and Nanosolar. It remains to be seen whether these companies can manage to survive this brutal downturn which has already led to the shuttering of thousands of solar companies and jobs.

Thin Film Technology – Major Players

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 up to 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 valuation to $550 million from $1.2 billion earlier.Seems an attractive target for a takeover.

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) MasdarMasdar 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.

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.

The First Wave of Thin Film Bankruptcies

    1. Applied Materials is perhaps the biggest loser with the managment all but giving up on its Thin Film Equipment Division (SunFab).This turnkey technology has failed to keep up with the decline in costs and improvment in Technology.With most of its customers already writing off their investments,AMAT too has reduced support to SunFab
    2. Oerlikon Solar like AMAT had bet its future on supplying a-Si Thin Film Equipment to customers and was giving Applied Materials tough competition.However the falling poly prices  have resulted in sharp order cuts for Oerlikon and the survival of its thin film division too is in doubt
    3. 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.
    4. Suntech a-Si Division which was set up in Shanghai with a SunFab equipment from Applied Materials  has been written off according to the management and will be retooled to manufacture high efficiency c-Si cells.
    5. Moser Baer was one of the first customers of Applied Materials SunFab Line.However the company had problems in ramping up its line.Recent results do not inspire any confidence in the success of its thin film venture
    6. Signet Solar was one of the best known a-Si startups with a strong management team.However like other SunFab customers it is too facing a bleak future with recent news of cancellation of its expansion plans
    7. Sanyo had set up a JV with Nippon Oil with grandiose plans to manufacture a-Si panels with a planned 1 GW capacity by2015.This JV Sanyo Eneos too is deferring its expansion plans with the cost/efficiency metrics not being competetive against c-Si modules
    8. 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

Second Wave of Solar Bankruptcies

1) Solyndra – The biggest and most famous solar bankruptcy of all times with the Obama administration coming under a massive attack.The company raised a billion dollars in equity and debt for its custom made cylinderical thin film CIGs solar panels.However the relentless competition from the low cost Chinese and its high cost structure has made it almost impossible for the company to survive any longer.

2) Suntech closed its CSG division which it had bought in the 2008 boom but was facing an uncertain future.

Heliovolt and Ascent Solar have sold controlling equity stakes to Asian conglomerates like the SK Group being unable to go ahead alone given the substantial costs of manufacturing expansion and marketing etc.


Abhishek Shah

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