Tag Archives: Thin Film Solar

The Rise and Fall (and possible resurrection) of Thin-Film Solar Technology

Solar powered calculator

A tiny strip of thin film powers this calculator.

Thin-film solar technology has been around for quite some time and most of us have benefited from it’s use. Thin-film is most commonly used to power small hand-held calculators and watches and is created by depositing a number of thin layers of photovoltaic material onto a solar wafer. More recently, thin-film PV has become available in larger module form and is being used for building integrated installations (like this) and vehicle charging systems. Thin-film PV has grown in popularity due to its sleek look and light weight, which reduces the cost of installation and allows solar installations in areas not traditionally suited for large solar panels.

  • From 2004 to 2009 shipments of thin-film PV grew from 68 MW to 2 GW.
  • The market share for thin-film decreased to 11% in 2011. Down from 18% in 2009.
  • Thin-film solar panel sales reached $4.53 billion in 2010 but are expected to drop to $2.9 billion in 2012.

This decline in thin-film solar panel sales is due in part to the dramatic price drops in crystalline PV technology (the main alternative to thin film) the past few years. The price advantage thin-film panels held over crystalline technology is no longer relevant and the fact the crystalline PV panels are generally more efficient have given them the recent edge over thin-film technology.

First Solar – Headquartered in Tempe, Arizona. They posted their second-ever loss in Q1 2012 and they also recently closed down their Germany factory and fired 30% of their workforce. First Solar anticipates producing 1500 to 1800 megawatts this year. (Green Tech Media)

Nanosolar – Headquartered in San Jose, California. This company has an ink-based solar technology that won the Innovation of the Year Award from Popular Science in 2007. They have recently secured funding to pursue the development of large scale solar systems that will cost no more per watt than conventional electricity and they have passed critical milestones to meet that goal by 2015 – a promising report. (Clean Technica)
 

Solar manufacturers had a tough time staying afloat in 2011. Chinese solar companies were accused of dumping solar panels in the U.S. at lower prices than the cost of manufacturing and in turn forced many manufacturers to file for bankruptcy or close down plants/cut their workforce. The most newsworthy of this bunch was Solyndra but other manufacturers closed down as well, including Evergreen Solar, Energy Conversion Devices, and SpectraWatt.

This does not bode well, especially for thin-film manufacturers, who are struggling to keep up with price drops and efficiency increases. However, all is not lost. According to GTM Research:

” Venture capital investment into thin film in Q4 2011 and Q1 2012 combined to reach nearly $300 million. Solar Frontier continues to ramp up its GW-scale CIGS facility. Tokyo Electron bought Oerlikon Solar for $275 million, affirming long-term faith in the thin-film silicon manufacturing space. With CdTe, GE continues to invest heavily in Primestar, and First Solar still intends to open new capacity in Vietnam and Mesa, Arizona.”

It seems that if a handful of thin-film manufacturers can weather the current storm then they can hopefully restore some life to the industry by continuing to create innovation solar panels that push the limits of size, weight, cost, and efficiency.

Additional Resources:

Forbes “First Solar Struggles Amid Decline of Thin-Film Solar Market”
GreenTech Solar “Nanosolar Scores $20M to Keep Its CIGS PV Dream Alive”
GTM Research ” Thin Film 2012-2016: Technologies, Markets and Strategies for Survival”
How Stuff Works “Production of Thin-Film Solar Cells”
NREL “Thin Film CIGS and CdTe Photovoltaic Technologies”
Wikipedia  “Thin Film Solar Cell”
Uni-Solar Thin Film residential installation

5.6 KW Uni-Solar system in Heillbronn, Germany (Photo Courtesy of Rheinzink GmbH & Co.)

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Solar Manufacturing Snapshot

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