The winners in the CIGS solar race have yet to be declared.

But Solar Frontier has to be counted amongst the leaders. 

Fresh after last week's announcement of the opening of its gigawatt-scale Kunitomi factory (the world’s largest CIGS thin-film solar module plant), Solar Frontier has begun announcing customers for its solar panels.

Solar Frontier signed an agreement with Granite Construction to provide 1.2 megawatts of thin-film solar CIGS technology at Granite’s aggregate and hot mix facility in Coalinga, Calif. The installation will supply up to 50 percent of the total energy requirement of the facility. 

The Kunitomi factory has one of the world’s largest production capacities for solar panels in a single plant, bringing an entire process from raw materials to finished modules under one roof. Commercial production started in February with production capacity targeting full capacity of one gigawatt this summer.

Greg Ashley, Solar Frontier's COO, recently told me, "We think we're in a horse race with our cadmium telluride competitors," adding, "It will take two to three years in this race to catch them. There are competitors in the market who are intimidated. We're not intimidated." In case anyone hasn't figured it out, we're talking about solar cost leader First Solar here.

This is a new style of rhetoric for a Japanese company. 

Solar Frontier began research into CIGS thin-film solar in 1993, shipped 46 megawatts in 2009 and more than 100 megawatts in 2010.

The relatively quiet (until now, that is) firm has had product in the field since 2003 and with the backing of Shell, Showa and other big-money sources, has a sizable balance sheet and has already shown its willingness to invest billions of dollars into capacity. 

If Solar Frontier can meet the efficiency claims and time frames they are targeting, they are a company to watch very carefully. That type of performance would validate the potential of CIGS and explain why even First Solar has a fifty-person CIGS initiative in Silicon Valley. Of course, this technical progress has to arrive with First Solar-style cost reduction. First Solar quotes costs of $0.75 per watt.

Solar Frontier announced last year that it will supply General Electric (GE) with GE-branded CIGS thin-film solar modules. 

Ashley said, "We are ahead of target on every one of our goals -- on the plant, cost reduction and efficiency."  The firm looks to eventually ship 20,000 panels per day from their new factory with a 14-percent efficiency rating and a module size of 3 feet by 4 feet. Current panel efficiencies are spec'd as "up to 12.2 percent."

Competitors in the CIGS/CIS materials systems include Solyndra, MiaSolé, NanoSolar, HelioVolt, SoloPower, and AQT.