Thin-film PV should now be as simple as ABCD



Recently, we prepared two exclusive blogs for PV-Tech that outlined what PV cell production and technologies looked like at the start of 2014: Can PV technology change before 2015? and What does NPD Solarbuzz’ solar cell rankings for 2013 reveal?

With c-Si gaining market share against thin-film at above the 90% figure, it is perhaps understandable that these two blogs were dominated by c-Si activity. So, we have decided to explain what’s happening in thin-film now, in a dedicated feature. And try and make this as simple as possible.

In the same way that the c-Si technology categories were re-evaluated in the technology blog, it turns out that the thin-film solar sector also needs a different take at the start of 2014.

So, gone are the legacy thin-film segmentations done purely by technology type or geographic location. The industry has moved beyond lists of thin-film companies by technology and assigning production. Furthermore, we’ve decided this time that it makes more sense to bypass many of the exotic process flow variants of the past.

For reasons that will become apparent below, all manufacturers of thin-film solar panels are now fitting neatly into four simple groupings, we have labelled as A, B, C, and D below. This is now explained and how this provides a means to benchmark thin-film companies (not technologies) based upon their solar modus operandi.

The four thin-film categories

We define the four thin-film categories, as follows:

A. Volume manufacturing proven, brand premium and sales pipeline assured. This group has four companies today in terms of thin-film: First Solar, Solar Frontier, Sharp and 3Sun. While it may look like we’ve just pulled out the market leaders from each technology type, the technology used for this grouping is irrelevant. What matters is the profile of these thin-film producers in the PV industry today, encompassing R&D, production, sales and marketing.

B. The second category is comprised only of a-Si manufacturers located in either China or Taiwan. (Note a-Si is used for any a-Si based single, dual, triple, etc. absorber.) China has long had its own a-Si technology base, stretching back to the days that a-Si cells were all the rage for portable calculators or early digital wristwatches

C. The third category includes all the other a-Si manufacturers left (having removed China-made, Taiwan-made and those from Sharp/3Sun). This is mostly taking in Southeast Asia and Japan today, with US a-Si based production grinding to a halt.

D. The final category has anything else thin-film. This includes everything CIGS that is not Solar Frontier, anything CdTe that is not First Solar, and also includes all the dye or organics based PV flavours.
Time to bury misleading ‘Gen’ tags

Gone for good also in the above groupings is the misleading ‘Gen’ terminology that was common in Europe about ten years ago. Namely, that c-Si was the Gen. 1 solar PV technology, thin-film would become the Gen. 2, and then (as hard as it is to believe now) somehow dye-sensitized and organic-based solar cells were going to emerge by 2015 as the Gen. 3 in solar technology. Countless roadmaps were advocated around mainland Europe on this theme until recently.

It makes much more sense to put anything dye or organic-based into the fourth category (D) above, with this encompassing many R&D and pilot lines.

Any chance of a revival in amorphous silicon?

It is actually really interesting to see that two a-Si groups are identified in the ABCD list. Amorphous silicon has indeed been on a rollercoaster ride since 2006, with the participation of turn-key suppliers creating an expectation for the technology that was always going to be hard to fulfil. It is probably fair to say that the jury is out still on whether the phase of turn-key a-Si lines created more good press than bad press.

However, all that said and done, there are still many people that remain true to their a-Si convictions, and the technology has been around since the mid-1970s, and is arguably the most user-friendly of thin-film technologies for new entrants to adopt. Dual and triple layers remain the route to increase efficiency levels.

Reviewing the ABCD productivity

The figure attached is derived from data within the most recent production database in the NPD Solarbuzz PV Equipment Quarterly report. Here, all the thin-film suppliers have been segmented and the methodology above applied.

The figure spells out the clear dominance of the First Solar, Solar Frontier and Sharp/3Sun grouping. As yet another sign that people and business plans are more important than thin-film technology choice, each of these companies is simply running with a technology chosen well over 10 years ago. If First Solar had chosen CIGS from day-one and Solar Frontier had inherited CdTe from the Shell/Siemens solar R&D pool, would the thin-film space look any different today apart from the absorber nomenclature?

The four leading thin-film producers had 75% of thin-film market share in 2013, a strong increase compared to the data back in 2010. All other thin-film categories, as shown in the figure, are in decline, with the most severely affected being the ‘Everything else’ group.

The ‘Everything else’ has the Nanosolars, the Solyndras, and the UniSolars of the thin-film world. The list is extremely long. The investments were very high. The hype in many cases was very loud. But for many of the scientists and engineers that set their hearts on this approach to playing in the solar PV industry, the pain of redundancy was particularly hard. Between 2010 and 2013, the names may have changed in this grouping, but the fortunes of this thin-film challenging pack remains largely as it was before.

However, in light of the four categories being used, is there a common thread across all these other thin-film companies, in the way they operate? It is an interesting way to look at thin-film solar at the start of 2014. Are there lessons that can be learnt from company strategy, before technology?

Hanergy’s CIGS play

It is impossible not to discuss Hanergy alone, when doing a thin-film review at the start of 2014. Where will Hanergy’s CIGS activities slot in, in terms of the four thin-film categories above?

Without a shadow of doubt, Hanergy wants to become company number five in the elite thin-film grouping (A) outlined above. However, the same ‘wants’ were clear to see several years ago when Apollo Solar was acquired and a-Si was the preferred technology platform. Prior to the start of 2014, Hanergy’s first few billion dollars of solar fab spending has only been good enough to be ranked along with Trony, and others, closer to home, in what is Group B above.

One way or another, when we do the 2013 versus 2016 analysis in three years from now, the answer to the Hanergy CIGS question will be known. Will Hanergy find an elusive thin-film end-market ready to take its panels, or (like the other successful thin-film companies) will it have to ringfence/develop an end-market niche to justify in-house production.

Final thoughts

By the end of 2013, companies manufacturing c-Si and thin-film modules found themselves serving different end-market applications and geographies, and having different strategies to compete in the PV industry. For most sales people, it must seem a long time since competitive arguments were the norm in winning downstream business.

With costs rapidly normalizing between best-of-class c-Si and thin-film tier 1 suppliers, the focus is starting to shift to efficiency comparisons (not to mention balance of systems considerations). And here, as the chasing technology, it is the leading thin-film suppliers (First Solar and Solar Frontier) that are most vocal in efficiency roadmap targets.

During 2014 and 2015, one of the most interesting thin-film issues will be how much the delta changes, between average multi c-Si modules and the average production figures of Solar Frontier and First Solar. The roadmaps of the two thin-film leaders remain highly ambitious, while the upper limits of multi may well have been underestimated (by many within the industry). Very few had predicted multi getting to where it is now in terms of average efficiency yields out of China and Taiwan (not to mention costs).

Given the timescales to get new thin-film fabs up and running, it is unlikely that there will be many changes during 2014. Therefore, similar to the c-Si issues discussed in the previous blogs, it looks like 2015 is going to be the year that thin-film activity once again creates headlines within the PV industry.

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