Nanosolar is a poster child for Silicon Valley solar innovation.

What does it have?

  • Half a billion in venture and strategic investment? Check.
  • Top shelf VC investors? Check.
  • Secretive and allegedly disruptive technology? Check.
  • Ornery technology? Check.
  • Ornery and driven CEO? Check.
  • Billions in alleged order backlog? Check.
  • Periodic rumors of them being the next monster IPO in greentech? Check.

It's been hard to separate fact from fiction with this company. And that's been its prerogative. It's a privately held firm and doesn't have to disclose a thing if it doesn't want to. Which is one reason why Nanosolar CEO Martin Roscheisen's short speech filled the 327 person capacity auditorium at the Palo Alto Research Center on Wednesday's night meeting at the SVPVS.

Nanosolar has spent a lot of money. "If I don't get a request to sign-off on a $70K P.O. every day, then our metrology guys must be out sick," joked Roscheisen. The company has 350 employees, 350 patents and has focused on reinventing CIGS with regard to capital efficiency and cost. It's been at work on this mammoth project since 2002.

I'd like to tell you that Roscheisen dropped several bombshells and gave all us the scoop on their next milestone and conquest, but it was not to be. You can probably learn more about Nanosolar's recent activities in this article from Ucilia Wang, in this blog on Nanosolar patents from Eric Lane and in the sleuthing of Ed Guenther than you could learn from Martin's slide show.

Roscheisen is adept at controlling the information flow from his company and tonight was no exception. He side-stepped or flat-out ignored questions he didn't want to address concerning yield and production targets.

Here are a few things he did say:

  • "We're producing about a Megawatt a month right now."
  • "We've gone beyond the standard industry testing to make sure we're beyond reliability issues."
  • "We expect to be profitable at a price point of $1/W."
  • "We expect to be three times as capital efficient as First Solar."

He added that, "Capital efficiency is going to be a huge driver" for new solar companies and that he expected Nanosolar's factory cost to be a third of First Solar's dollar per watt, adding that the Applied Materials line cost $3 per Watt.

He returned to the First Solar theme quite a lot in his presentation. Clearly Nanosolar has ambitions of being on price parity and at the scale of the extraordinarily successful Cadmium Telluride PV leader First Solar. Roschesen spoke of the balance of system cost advantage that Nanosolar had over First Solar because of the larger panel size, of the higher power per panel, of the lower mounting labor costs, and the stability of CIGS vs CdTe.

Despite the hundreds of megawatt capacity claim, Nanosolar is producing just 1 megawatt per month.  

Nanosolar has accomplished a lot in its seven years. It seems to have tamed the difficult CIGS materials system, it has worked through hundreds of hurdles with regards to substrate materials, encapsulation, packaging, production and reliability. Perhaps most importantly, the company has moved the PV manufacturing model from one that looks like semiconductor wafer production to one that looks like printing. And it deserves immense credit for this.

In a recent email exchange with a Nanosolar board member whom I respect, the exchange ended with the investor saying that slow and steady will win the CIGS game. And Nanosolar seems to be slowly and steadily making headway into commercialization. There are still plenty of challenges ahead.

There is a good book to be written here about innovation and risk in the Nanosolar story.

Whether that book has a happy ending remains to be seen.