Vijay Kapur, the CEO of International Solar Energy Technology (ISET), is one of the solar industry's quiet pioneers -- but you can expect a bit of noise from him in the future.

"My history is with ARCO Solar" said Kapur, claiming that much of the technical lineage of CIGS sputtering and selenization at solar firms SoloPower, Nanosolar, Honda, Showa Shell and Avancis came "out of the lab I directed."

In 1984 Kapur was involved with the company that later became First Solar, Ohio's Glasstech.   Kapur claims that he advised the founders to concentrate on CIGS, rather than pursuing their intention to move into amorphous silicon at that time.  Regarding First Solar, Kapur says: "I think everything they've done is right, ... but they can be challenged."

Kapur's resume also includes some time at the Department of Atomic Energy in India.  Kapur said, "If you want to build a plant, give me the kinetics of your process. You can't go from equipment to process; you must know kinetics of the process."

"The industry so far shows that you have to work out the process.  Even with our extensive experience, we have had some big problems with the pilot line."  ISET's  pilot line is now operational and the goal is to "streamline the manufacturing process."

"Unlike a lot of other players who have had the benefit [?] of raising venture money, I don't have a single dollar of venture capital, I have a little private equity money and help from angels -- a little over $17.5 million," Kapur continued. 

ISET's first financing was in 2006, with a second round from David Gelbaum's Quercus Trust.    

The company's solar panel is monolithically integrated on glass, "and we're making them every day."

Kapur claims that Nanosolar "copied their patented technologies" after a visit from Chris Eberspacher and Craig Leidholm  (Leidholm is now at Solexant).  According to Kapur, "Of any of the CIGS companies, nobody has the cost structure that can compete as yet.  Hard disk drive technology does not work."

Obviously, MiaSole, Frontier Solar, AQT and the rest of the CIGS army might take exception to that claim.  MiaSole seems to have made some enormous progress, Frontier has First Solar in its sights, and AQT is efficiently scaling.

The "bottom line," as per Kapur, "is who can deliver CIGS panels better than First Solar."  ISET states that it achieved 11 percent cell average conversion efficiency (First Solar is in production at 11.1 percent efficiency at a cost of $0.76 per watt), with R&D teams producing laboratory devices at over 14 percent efficiency. Kapur noted that research efforts were “on track to reach 16 percent in the near term.”

Here's some cost info: according to Kapur, "You need better material utilization." In his analysis, "In any thin-film, the biggest cost is materials," adding, "In our product, materials are 50 percent of the cost."   The number-two cost item is capital depreciation, followed by manufacturing overhead -- taxes, fixtures liability, factory overhead.  According to Kapur, labor is the lowest cost component -- "We're not making bras."

Why are companies relocating to Asian countries?  It's not because of labor advantage. According to Kapur, it's because "they are giving ten to fourteen years of tax holiday -- that's a huge subsidy."  He adds, "The U.S. government has to bring manufacturing back to the U.S.  We have the most innovative minds -- we need to bring the manufacturing back to the States."

ISET's planned production is a turnkey system of 25 megawatts to 30 megawatts, and Kapur expects that the company "will go big with JVs worldwide, each with 30-megawatt lines." He added that the technology "has to be so simple and elegant it can be deployed worldwide," with a "30-megawatt or 50-megawatt line [that is able to be] replicated quickly."

In 2006 First Solar was at 30 megawatts.  The firm worked on replicating that 25 megawatt to 30 megawatt  line. Now their standard turnkey system is 80 megawatts, and "that model works." But according to the CEO, "First Solar knows that cadmium telluride (CdTe) will be challenged." 

Kapur acknowledges that "the world's perception that solar is expensive is so entrenched," but adds, "In my mind, grid parity is less than three years away."  (The whole notion of grid parity is a bit fuzzy when it comes to solar.)

Kapur's recommendation is to "look at the FIT in Germany. The public has to be convinced. Pay attention to making it a money-making proposition."

However, Kapur does not seem to be entirely focused on rooftops in Germany: "The majority of growth is in developing countries. They want basic necessities. They need clean water. If you make cheap energy available, cheap energy improves the health and lifestyle of the people.  Look for off-grid in the developing world."  According to Kapur, in India the cost of power from a diesel generator is $0.65 per kW-hour. "We'll have to be a lot more creative with financing.  The price of PV today can already be cost-competitve in this market."

Kapur pulls no punches on amorphous silicon (a-Si).  "What happened to Signet and Moser Baer?" he asks, pronouncing, "Forget a-Si."

ISET prints CIGS solar modules via a water-based nanoparticle ink as a precursor.  The firm "uses standard approaches for sputtering moly and for selenization."  Kapur projects ISET's capex at $0.65 per watt, with a $0.50-per-watt finished product cost at about 13 percent efficiency.

The next few quarters should reveal the winners in CIGS.

Tags: a-si, amorphous silicon, ascent solar, c-si, cdte, cigs, crystalline silicon, first solar, iset, miasole, nanosolar, pv, solar, solar frontier, solar panels