Solexel’s lightweight mono PV attracts Saudi funding, challenges remain

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The venture capital investment arm of King Saud University of Saudi Arabia has picked out Solexel, a manufacturer of thin monocrystalline solar as a prospect, contributing to a recently closed funding round for the US company.

With its IP-protected high-efficiency monocrystalline thin photovoltaic cells and panels, Solexel aim to compete with silicon solar on efficiency, but with thin-film on flexibility and versatility. According to Solexel, its products are lightweight enough for commercial flat roofs that normally would not be considered suitable for PV and the company claims they are also designed with aesthetics in mind for homeowners.

The company’s board of directors includes Ihra Ehrenpreis, one of the early backers of Tesla and more recently a co-founder of DBL, an investment firm which specialises in sustainable and cleantech assets. Ehrenpreis is also a managing partner for Technology Partners, another cleantech investment company, which participated in the latest funding call.

Having opened a pilot fab in California in summer, Solexel filed a Form D with the US SEC for the most recent round, which saw it offer equity, options and securities worth around US$98.2 million. The Series D round took about a year to close.

Through a specialist investor introduction service, Naseba, Riyadh Valley Partners decided to invest, ahead of an expected “high-volume scale-up in a low-cost location” for Solexel. According to some reports the location is likely to be Malaysia.

“The company demonstrated a remarkable growth and we expect their momentum to accelerate even faster with the global demand for their solutions and the great potential of renewable energy in Saudi Arabia,” Riyadh Valley Partners’ CEO, Dr Khalid Alsaleh said of Solexel and its products.

Just getting started up

Analyst Finlay Colville of Solar Intelligence told PV Tech this morning that the latest funding shows another external source of financing coming into what he described as Solexel’s “prolonged start-up phase”.

The company has been going since 2007 and unveiled its thin high-performance silicon solar cell in 2012. Commercialising the technology will represent an integrated production challenge that other PV manufacturers have not taken on, Colville said – namely producing much thinner wafers than the industry has become accustomed to.

“There remain many challenges to commercialising sub 100 micron, far less sub 50 micron, wafers in the PV industry today,” Colville said.

“Any factory, all the way through to module encapsulation, will require bespoke tooling and process knowledge. While thin wafers were a strong driver back in 2007 during the days of high polysilicon prices, shifting to sub-100 micron wafers was considered to be a high priority.”

“Making any reduction in wafer size that requires a new approach to wafer handling is not considered to be of priority to most leading manufacturers in the industry”.

Colville injected a note of caution when he went on to say that Solexel’s identification of niche PV markets was similar to a number of thin-film start-ups that are long since gone and possibly a risky strategy. Colville pointed out the example of the lighweight flexible laminated solar, Uni-Solar, made by the now-defunct Energy Conversion Devices. 

In identifying niche markets based on lightweight rooftops or anything BIPV-related, Colville said, comparisons to many thin-film makers that lost their competitive edge to c-Si supply some years ago were inevitable.

However, Colville said that if successful in ramping up products of suitable quality to large enough scale, Solexel could target a number of markets.

“Ultimately, if the efficiency is high enough and the cost of manufacturing is low enough, any end market is an option for Solexel. In this context, it is probably prudent to park any application specific discussions until the first results from large-scale manufacturing are known.”

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