AQT, a VC-funded solar startup in Sunnyvale, California, has joined the ranks of CIGS solar firms that have shipped product. 

That in itself is not that remarkable -- there's a long list of mostly unprofitable CIGS firms in that group, some that have shipped tens of megawatts.  The CIGS list would be led by Solar Frontier and Solibro and would include Solyndra, SoloPower, MiaSolé, Wurth Solar, Stion, Global Solar Energy, Nanosolar and a number of other VC-funded startups.

What's remarkable about AQT Solar is that they've gone from founding to commercial production quickly and cheaply. While Solyndra, Nanosolar, MiaSolé and the other CIGS pioneers have spent money like drunken sailors, AQT looks like it will reach commercial production in three years' time -- and on about $20 million dollars.  

Solyndra has probably spent that much on lawyers and plane fare to D.C.

The company has also shipped CIGS cells to several customers and has an order backlog of 160 megawatts, approximately 50 megawatts of which is due in 2011, according to the firm.
AQT’s new production facility houses a 15-megawatt manufacturing line based on automated dry sputtering equipment from Intevac.  It can scale up to 60 megawatts of production capacity in a very compact footprint within a year.

The preparation, build-out, line implementation and qualification, and production initiation for AQT's Sunnyvale location took less than eight weeks.  "That really bodes well for how this business scales," said Michael Bartholomeusz, AQT's CEO.

AQT is on the contrarian side of CIGS panel manufacturers -- they are not going after monolithic panels, but instead will manufacture "low-cost CIGS cells that are drop-in replacements for conventional crystalline silicon cells," according to the CEO.  Bartholomeusz sees AQT at a similar levelized cost of energy (LCOE) to First Solar, while still maintaining a 50 percent gross margin.

The firm will work with module manufacturers as well as developers to create a solar partner ecosystem that creates some pull for their product.  It's a novel strategy, but the value of that strategy remains to be proven in a commodity market like solar cells and PV panels.

Getting to production quickly and inexpensively is huge -- but the price per watt for this company's product has yet to be determined.  And First Solar and the Chinese solar tigers are not standing still.

AQT's end-customers include the two-megawatt Sol Pacifico installation, scheduled to break ground in 2011 with the potential to grow to nine megawatts.  It will support a large high-end resort development in Baja, Mexico.  

Unlike Nanosolar, Solyndra, Solopower, et al., AQT did not design its own manufacturing equipment. Instead, it re-purposed Intevac equipment from the hard drive industry.  MiaSolé's CEO Joseph Laia argues that generic equipment leads to generic solar cells

Generic solar cells would be fine.  As long as they cost less than the competition's.