RSI, a VC-funded cadmium telluride thin-film solar module startup formerly known as Reel Solar, was just acquired by an undisclosed "Chinese strategic," according to the company's new CEO.

A source close to the deal confirmed the acquisition and noted that former CEO Ed Grady has been replaced by Scott Burton, the firm's VP of business development. RSI's website does not yet reflect this change. The company's listed phone number has been disconnected.

Burton's profile from the RSI site follows:

Scott B. Burton joined RSI in September 2013. He is a solar industry veteran, previously CEO of Parity Solar [and] COO of Solibro GmbH, and [he] headed up technology acquisitions for Hanergy Group. Scott is experienced in panel manufacturing (using c-Si, a-Si and CIGS) and was also involved in the development, financing and construction of over 100 PV projects in China, USA, Germany and Italy.  He has established successful manufacturing businesses in China and Malaysia for Seagate, Advanced Energy, Brooks Automation and his own company, Keystone. Early in his career he worked in R&D at IBM and the U.S. DOE. His research included high temperature materials for the first solar thermal power station, in Barstow, CA.  Mr. Burton holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and an M.S. in Materials Science from Stanford University. He is a Six Sigma Black Belt and Lean Manufacturing expert.

The team, under new management, will be continuing to develop the technology, according to our source.

In an interview from late last year, then-CEO Ed Grady told GTM that RSI was building a VC-funded thin-film solar module manufacturing company in a different way -- what he described as a "virtual turnkey" solar factory. The twenty-employee RSI was going after a licensing, franchising, and equipment sales model with cadmium telluride as the module's absorber material.

The following excerpt from the 2013 article provides more information about RSI's approach as Grady described it to GTM at the time.

RSI employs an electroplating process that works at a lower temperature than First Solar's and allows the use of larger glass sizes. RSI uses an electrodeposition technology "inherited from Monosolar." 

Grady said he looks to reach parity with First Solar efficiency numbers "with the extra lever that we can go very large in manufacturing." He equated the gains in larger glass sizes with the gains in larger wafer sizes in semiconductors -- moving from 4-inch to 6-inch to 8-inch wafers lowers capex, improves scaling, and better utilizes materials. (Grady was once one of the top execs at KLA.) 

Larger sizes, in the CEO's viewpoint, drive down installed costs. RSI just announced its 1.5-square-meter CdTe panel, which is much larger than conventional 0.72-square-meter panels.

RSI targets $0.40 per watt for its modules. The company has a 12 percent efficiency goal for this year and targets 13 percent to 14 percent for its large module in 2014. 

"The roadmap for CdTe is to go thin," said the co-founder. "You need smooth, uniform films. Electroplating gets us to thinner thin films -- and the grain structure is smaller than with high-temperature deposition films." Smoother interfaces make for better device performance, he added.

But the business plan is based on the core IP and the design of the tools. RSI will license the technology, retain a royalty on every module sold, and sell the CdS and CdTe deposition equipment. The other tools (e.g., furnaces, laser scribes, laminators, etc.) are off-the-shelf. That's the "virtual turnkey" solar factory. 

Grady envisioned the licensee as a vertically integrated developer that wanted to take on First Solar head-on with manufacturing and solar farm EPC.  

RSI received $20 million in VC Investment from Mayfield, CalCEF, CMEA, Pangaea Ventures and Nth Power. Peter Darbee, former PG&E CEO, was on the board.

Today, when it comes to volume shipments of CdTe thin-film solar modules, there's First Solar, and then, well, there's not really anyone else.

First Solar's CTO Raffi Garabedian told GTM, "CdTe already provides the best combination of manufacturability and performance, making it the most cost-effective technology for utility-grade PV. Further efficiency improvements at the manufacturing scale will solidify this position."

  • First Solar asserts that it can equal efficiencies of average c-Si modules by the end of 2015.
  • The company believes it can hit ~19.5 percent efficiency in 2017 (that's up from a previous target of 17.2 percent).
  • The firm also sees credible long-term paths to 23-percent-efficient and 25-percent-efficient CdTe cells.

First Solar remains the industry cost leader despite the fall in polysilicon prices and China's trade practices. First Solar asserts that it can get below $1.00 per watt in total system cost in 2017, a 35 percent reduction from 2013. This will be driven by balance-of-system and module efficiency gains, as well as trackers and incorporating GE’s inverter. If First Solar can hit the 37 cents per watt target by 2017, it can stay ahead of the c-Si competition.

And that's the very ambitious goal that RSI's new owners now have to meet.