Is an amorphous thin film shakeout occurring?


News that amorphous thin-film competitors Sunfilm and Sontor are to merge due to the competitive landscape, overcrowded market, and the dominance of First Solar–both from a capacity and conversion efficiency standpoint-could be the first of many such consolidations, as the solar market stalls due to the global current economic climate.

With CdTe and CIGS thin-film start-ups entering volume production in 2009, lower efficiency a-Si producers could be squeezed hard, forcing them to reduce costs and therefore prices just to survive.

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However, that wouldn’t be so difficult if capital was easy to obtain and at competitive rates since this would allow capacity expansions to gain the economies of scale required to remain competitive. That isn’t the situation currently and it’s doubtful that this will change any time soon.

One way that those economies of scale can be reached is through merger with other competitors. Though not as cost efficient as expanding internally, it remains one of the best available options.

The merger of Sunfilm and Sontor also raises issues over the viability of Applied Materials’ ‘SunFab’ technology. Sunfilm has been the first to qualify Applied’s second-generation cell technology, which produces 8% module efficiencies, and can be expected to compete strongly with any other a-Si technology user. However, doubts remain over whether a-Si thin film can compete with the benchmark figures set by First Solar.

In a rapidly expanding market, even First Solar could not expect to meet all the demand for its modules, opening the way for a-Si competitors. However, the market has stalled, and with new entrants such as Solyndra and others adopting higher efficiency technologies, they also become major competitors to a-Si.

A year from now things could look radically different as the U.S. market really takes hold and growth across multiple regions returns to new record levels, providing a-Si a market to fill. Right now that isn’t the case and could prompt others to follow Sunfilm and Sontor.

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