Can solar startup SoloPower prove the commercial business case for flexible CIGS solar panels and improve the optics of the beleaguered DOE loan guarantee program?

SoloPower, a flexible solar panel manufacturer, starts production at its 400-megawatt capacity Oregon factory this week, according to Reuters.

That milestone lets SoloPower begin to access a $197 million DOE loan guarantee -- the firm "must have its first production line up and running and meet other undisclosed milestones before it can begin to draw down funds," according to the Reuters piece.

Earlier recipients of loans from the $35 billion DOE loan guarantee program for solar manufacturing include the defunct CIGS thin film aspirant Solyndra and the defunct cadmium telluride thin film firm Abound Solar. The firm 1366 Technologies also won a $150 million loan guarantee but has yet to draw down funds.

Abound's failure is indicative of the difficulty of competing against Chinese crystalline silicon solar with U.S.-based manufacturing, a challenge also faced by SoloPower. SoloPower claims it can extract a premium for it unique flexible panel -- but it still essentially must compete against solar panels from China and the U.S. with costs of $0.70 per watt.

SoloPower is going after the same rooftop market as Ascent Solar, Global Solar, and the now-bankrupt ECD, except it is doing it with a more efficient product. The value proposition for flexible modules from SoloPower is that there is less hardware required to install the modules and the installation is easier and less expensive. However, this thesis has yet to be proven in volume and scale.

The other alleged advantage of flexible CIGS solar panels is that their lightweight nature opens up "value-engineered" rooftops that could not support the weight of conventional crystalline solar panels. This thesis also remains to be proven.

SoloPower CEO Tim Harris said in the interview with Reuters that half of the buildings in the world can't bear the weight of heavy, rigid panels made with silicon. Others have claimed, "Each and every commercial roof in the developed world can withstand the extra 3 to 5 psf dead load required to support a glass panel PV installation." The company claims that lighter weight makes installation easier and reduces the cost of balance-of-system components. Certainly, it can reduce the cost of racking, which adds about $0.25 per watt.

SoloPower has raised more than $200 million from Hudson Clean Energy Partners, Crosslink Capital, Convexa, and Firsthand Capital. The firm has also won significant tax credits and incentives from state government.

Earlier this year, SoloPower raised the bar a little higher on the efficiency of its flexible solar panels, and is now boasting an NREL-measured aperture-area efficiency of 13.4 percent. Module efficiency for the firm's SF1 panel is 11.4 percent, according to Tim Harris, the CEO. The SF1 panel is optimized for metal roofs and has a junction box that is located on the front of the panel. The firm's panels are built with a roll-to-roll electrodeposition process.

I interviewed personnel at the firm last year; the CEO told me that capex is "way under a dollar [per watt]" and production cost is "competitive." Harris claimed his firm already has more orders than it can fill with a product targeted to regions with high electricity prices and rooftop solar subsidies.

Solar panels manufactured in the CIGS thin film materials system have long held the promise of high efficiency at low costs but have yet to deliver -- despite billions of dollars invested by venture capital investors. Solyndra is the most prominent failure, but other CIGS companies like AQT have faltered as well. CIGS firms HelioVolt and Ascent Solar gave over their firms to Asian conglomerate SK Group and TFG Radiant Group, respectively. Nanosolar has shipped in the neighborhood of ten megawatts of solar panels over the course of ten years and three CEOs. MiaSolé, despite strong technical achievements, has been forced to lay off a large fraction of its employees as its management looks for an acquirer or partner. Q-Cells sold its CIGS effort, Solibro, to Chinese power firm Hanergy.

The only way SoloPower can buck this trend is with very low costs, good efficiencies, high reliability and the sheen of bankability.