SPI 2011: Thin film on the ground

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Updated: Thin-film technologies are a favoured manufacturing alternative to conventional crystalline solar modules in the US. The R&D history goes way back and of course the US is home to First Solar, which stamped thin-film technology firmly on the PV industry map. However, thin-film related technologies were rarely mentioned at Solar Power International on the first few days.


The company recently announced its plans to locate a 400MW capacity CdTe thin-film plant in Denver, Colorado, with a production ramp targeted next year and commercial module availability in 2013.

GE noted at the time that the modules would be more efficient, lighter in weight, and larger than conventional thin-film panels – possibly an attempt to compete with First Solar.

TSMC Solar

Another anticipated announcement from a potential new entrant in the thin film space was TSMC Solar. The subsidiary of the largest semiconductor foundry announced before SPI that it is prepping the ramp of its first CIGSSe fab.

TSMC Solar is also using SPI 2011 as it did at the recent EU PVSEC event in Hamburg to build its distribution network for the key markets of Europe and North America.

In a worldwide exclusive interview with PV-Tech’s North American senior editor Tom Cheyney, TSMC Solar’s President, YC Chao, discussed in detail the manufacturing plans for its CIGSSe modules. The full interview is available on the PV-Tech website.

However, in regards to its US plans, TSMC Solar said that its commercial products are expected to be shipped in the first quarter of 2012, while listings for California Energy Commission (CEC) is slated for mid-Q1 2012. Obviously, they are targeting the commercial rooftop and utilities markets with its thin film offering.


Updates from two other US-based thin-film manufacturers were covered recently by Tom in the wake of the “you know who” bankruptcy. However, news has trickled out during SPI that MES specialist, Eyelit, has successfully implemented its manufacturing software to support Stion’s PV module production efforts.

Related to the growing job opportunities in the US PV sector, Eyelit’s vice president of sales and marketing Dan Estrada noted that the software company was aggressively recruiting to keep up with demand.

“We expect to increase company staff by about 30%,” stated Estrada. “Eyelit’s targeted software bundle enables PV manufacturers, such as Stion, to quickly scale from a pilot stage to high-volume commercial production. We feel that Stion’s capital-efficient approach and robust technology makes it well-positioned to leverage our product to enable rapid growth toward industry leadership.”

However, it is interesting to note that neither Stion nor Nanosolar have booths at SPI.

First Solar

Perhaps there is a theme emerging here, but First Solar is exhibiting at SPI on booth 2019 but hasn’t really been vocal so far at the show. The only direct news from the thin-film leader was a press release regarding its carbon footprint. Though not to be sneezed at, it’s hardly hard-core stuff to be punted at a major show.

That said, it is interesting to note that First Solar's global operations generated greenhouse gas emissions totalling approximately 194 metric tons of carbon dioxide emission equivalents (CO2e) per MW of modules produced.

First Solar has been focused on increasing both the throughput and module efficiencies of its ever-increasing number of production lines since starting operations, and this has been represented for the first time in carbon footprint measurements of a reduction in carbon intensity of approximately 21% from 2008 to 2010.

First Solar also reported that the 3.3GW of modules produced in 2010 are being used globally to displace over 2 million metric tons of CO2e emissions per year for their 25+ year product life.

Solar Frontier

With a CIS production capacity of 900MW at its new fab, Japan-based Solar Frontier is a potential force to be reckoned with. Sort of bucking the press release void, Solar Frontier – via a customer’s 1MW installation — can claim to have some news coincidently released during SPI, while actually exhibiting at the show at booth 5012.

The press release headline didn’t give anything away but a few paragraphs later, Solar Frontier was named as the module supplier to a 1MW installation at one of Granite Construction’s building materials plants in California.

Solar Frontier has also released news that it has extended its module warranty performance to 25 years. The warranty now being offered is supported by insurance from Munich Re.
“Our goal is to have up to 100% of our modules that are put in the field from this point registered by our customers,” said Brooks Herring, VP of communications and operations. “The registration process will be a valuable way to monitor or trace every Solar Frontier module by serial number. Our distributors and installers are enthusiastic about the new warranty and their opportunity to add even more value to the process by passing the flash data to end-users at the point of installation.”


Coincidently, United Solar, a wholly owned subsidiary of Energy Conversion Devices, announced the sale of 600kW worth of ‘Uni-Solar’ a-Si thin-film laminates to GP Batteries of Hong Kong, while the company manned booth 2135.

Considering that the company had reduced production to 4MW for the third quarter on the back of very weak demand – this is a decent sale!

Singulus Technologies

Remember we mentioned at the beginning of this review that the US was home to a number of thin-film manufacturers?

Well, manufacturing equipment supplier Singulus Technologies is well aware of this important fact and had taken the opportunity before the show to pre-announce that it would be unveiling a new processing system for vacuum-coating CIGS/CIS thin-film solar cells.

According to Singulus, the new system responds to the current demand for enhanced module efficiencies, while cutting production costs. The new vertical vacuum-based coating tool is specifically designed for CIGS/CIS module production. The company also touted that it had received its first order for the tool, though didn’t say whether this was in the US or elsewhere.

Regrettably, we have to say that Singulus wasn’t exhibiting at SPI.


That was the same with Colnatec LLC, but the company took the opportunity to shout about its ‘Colnatec Helios’ vapor phase film thickness system. According to the company, the Helios system is a hermetically sealed and heated crystal sensor housing combined with a patented, advanced quartz crystal capable of operation to 300°C during the selenization of CIGS films.

“The Helios System is a unique and effective solution that greatly improves the productivity and efficiency of the solar cell manufacturing process,” said Colnatec CTO Scott Grimshaw.

Global Solar Energy/ Dow Chemical
Thanks to a kind and well-informed reader, Global Solar Energy, a flex-CIGS thin-film producer not only made an announcement for SPI week but are exhibiting their ‘PowerFlex’ BIPV module offerings at booth 7157. Global Solar Energy first launched its PowerFlex laminate in 2008 and has manufacturing operations in Tucson, Arizona, USA and in Berlin, Germany with a combined capacity of 75MW.
When launching its flexible thin film laminate the company had claimed production real 10% average solar cell efficiencies, significantly higher than UNI-Solar a-Si laminates which have been in the 6% range for far too long. 
However, Global Solar Energy hasn’t really focused on the commercial rooftop market, though has had some success, rather it has tried to broaden the appeal with military and portable consumer applications. 
The biggest potential coup for the company is the fact that its technology is being used by Dow Chemical in its recently launched ‘Powerhouse' solar shingle product. 
Dow Chemical wasn’t a listed exhibitor at SPI but that didn’t stop them announcing the week before the show that its new product was now available to homeowners in Colorado. During show week, the company also announced that the product had passed numerous product certifications required for the product to be used commercially. 
Early days then for Dow Chemical and Global Solar in ramping sales but it would seem that company is ramping business opportunities elsewhere.
Global Solar announced that it had established strategic partnerships and an expansion at its Berlin, manufacturing facility, which is to deliver PowerFlex BIPV modules for the commercial buildings market. The company noted that is was soon to switch from a two-shift operation to a three-shift system as a result.
The company has signed multiyear, multimegawatt agreements with Energyka, Iscom SPA ,and BA Energy, and is finalizing agreements with other channel partners in Europe, the US and Asia. 
Global Solar’s BIPV roofing module received certification from both the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL), earlier this year.
Another CIGS thin-film supplier that wasn’t exhibiting at the show but had announced news leading up to the event was Nanosolar. Two commercial installations were touted. A project of 538kWp (2,750 Nanosolar utility panels) at the Camp Perry Ohio National Guard Base in Port Clinton, Ohio, and a ground-mounted project (1MWp) on schedule to be constructed at Camp Roberts California National Guard Base near Paso Robles, California. 
Konarka Technologies
As Konarka Technologies was at SPI at booth 5545, it is worth noting that at another event, eCarTech in Munich, Germany this week, it announced a partnership with automotive supplier Webasto on integrating organic solar cells in car roof systems. Webasto is famous for folding canvas roofs on VW Beetle and early air cooled vehicles. 
Konarka noted that the automotive sector was now a target market for the company but so was the BIPV market, which remained a core focus. I can picture multi-colour offerings in the future that attempt to match vehicle body colours. 
You know who
The cylindrical thin-film firm – making all the headlines for the wrong reasons was listed as an exhibitor at SPI and news this week concerned the sale by auction of some its assets. It also had its CEO Brian Harrison resign.
However, in related news the Chapter 11 firm has received strong interest from potential interested parties. 

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