What’s next for thin-film solar PV in 2015?

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The days of doing side-by-side comparisons of thin-film technologies and different absorber process flows may now be a thing of the past, at least outside the research laboratories. However, it is nonetheless a fascinating exercise to understand what is around the corner for thin-film solar PV as a technology offering to the solar industry.

VC funding for new thin-film spin-offs may have all but dried up, but there continues to be frequent, albeit lumpy, acquisitions of legacy thin-film manufacturers that can’t move forward without a healthy injection of capital. Therefore, while thin-film has taken a hit due to many high-profile casualties, there is still strong interest from a wide range of parties in which regions thin-film technologies are going to see greater market uptake in the next five to 10 years.

Similar to comparing, for example, vacuum versus non-vacuum CIGS deposition, it is also of limited value in doing a direct comparison of c-Si versus thin-film as a generic technology. Business models have changed. Seventeen of the top-20 module suppliers to the industry today have a dedicated downstream projects arm building projects to flip, hold or transfer to a yield-based vehicle.

However, when we extract thin-film as a separate offering to the PV industry, it is interesting to see where these panels are going. And of even more value, why this is happening? Is the temperature coefficient argument really driving a market-share uptick in high irradiation regions? Is there a push for local thin-film factories in domestic content-driven end markets?

This article uses data from the recent NPD Solarbuzz PV Technology Roadmap report as the basis for a detailed discussion that helps frame the geographic location of the 4.5GW of thin-film panels forecast to be shipped to the solar end-market during 2015. It also summarises the trends from the two leading thin-film suppliers, First Solar and Solar Frontier.

First Solar production line. Demand for thin-film technology is still significant, supply will depend on the extent to which leading manufacturers build new production lines. Image: First Solar.
Figure 1: Global shipment of thin-film panels between 2010 and 2014, with a forecast out to 2015. Source: NPD Solarbuzz PV Technology Roadmap report, September 2014.

Domestic safety with in-house supply

Another way to look at thin-film deployment is to consider domestic downstream activity. This starts to get us into a more interesting realm of end-market choice and diversification.

Assigning First Solar as a US manufacturer, purely by virtue of its corporate base, we can start to pull out how much thin-film shipments are simply going to the country of HQ origin. For example, all First Solar’s US utility projects; Solar Frontier’s domestic Japanese shipments, etc.

Going through the thin-film suppliers, and looking annually at where their shipments are going, we can start to compare local-to-overseas shipments.

In 2010, collectively, First Solar and Solar Frontier shipped 89% of production to countries outside their corporate HQ location. In the first three quarters of 2014, 83% has been shipped to location of corporate HQ, namely the US and Japanese end markets.

Figure 2: Shipments from the two leading thin-film suppliers to the PV industry (First Solar and Solar Frontier) from 2010 to the end of Q3’14. ‘Home’ is defined as location of corporate HQ. Source: NPD Solarbuzz Module Tracker Quarterly, October 2014.

Home-grown brand perception, local knowledge of the landscape, language advantages, political lobbying skills; there are many reasons why First Solar is so dominant in the US and Solar Frontier in Japan, but – whatever the conclusion – it would be very hard to make the case that CdTe panels happen to work best in the US and CIGS panels in Japan.

One could almost make the same case for Chinese-manufactured p-type multi c-Si modules deployed in the Chinese market. But the difference is that p-type shipments are so much higher, domestic or overseas, from any manufacturing base; and as of now, p-type c-Si modules dominate virtually every end market globally.

While the data clearly captures what has been happening with First Solar and Solar Frontier between 2010 and 2014, it is way too early to simply extend the trends going forward. Yes, each company is going to have strong success in their domestic markets, but in the future, it is very much about global pipelines and having a successful outcome in energy auctions in regions such as the Middle East and Latin America. And in this respect, the focus largely falls on which projects First Solar will act on outside the US, with Solar Frontier entrenched in the vibrant Japanese market.

However, having a multi-gigawatt pipeline is one thing. Having the panels to supply is a different matter, at least when it comes to thin-film.

Assuming existing factories are flat out making panels – and there is no new greenfield fab build – then pipeline enactment simply becomes supply limited. Yes, efficiency and throughput increases can shift the curve forwards, and using mothballed tooling in existing factories can help boost the numbers, but the big leap forward comes from adding new production lines.

In the absence of adding new production lines, the only remaining option may be to outsource c-Si modules. While this is a relatively easy step for vertically integrated (producing and installing) c-Si based companies, through branding, it is something that cannot be hidden in the case of thin-film project developers.

Ultimately, the increased revenue streams that are on offer from project development may simply become too much of a pull, and this could mark a key turning point for the industry in the next few years, especially if c-Si (silicon and non-silicon) costs retain a consistent downward trend, coupled with efficiency increases and higher rated power powers.

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