SoloPower, which has come up with a way to make copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) solar panels through electroplating, is going through some growing pains.
Lou DiNardo, a partner at investor Crosslink Capital with several years of experience in the chip industry, has taken over as interim CEO, replacing co-founder Homayoun Talieh. Talieh will remain as a board member but not have a day-to-day management role.
The company also stated that Rommel Noufi, a leading CIGS scientist, returned to his position at the National Renewable Energy Labs earlier this year. Noufi became VP of research at SoloPower in February 2008 and helped recruit others, such as ex-Miasole scientist Kannan Ramanathan. Earlier this year, a SoloPower executive denied rumors that Noufi had returned to NREL.
Like a lot of solar startups, SoloPower is trying to move from promise to production and that transition isn't easy. The company has devised a way to produce CIGS cells through the 200-plus year old process of electroplating, or getting materials to adhere to another surface through an electric charge. SoloPower says this allows it to utilize nearly 100 percent of the chemicals, higher than other CIGS processes like evaporation, sputtering or printing.
In the lab, it seems to work. The company's early modules have been certified to have a 10.07 percent efficiency, which makes it competitive with other CIGS companies. Large solar cells (100 square centimeters) have been rated at 12.1 percent efficiency, according to Alain Harrus, a partner at Crosslink. SoloPower has also made small solar cells with 14.5 percent efficiency.
A big part of the appeal of CIGS is high efficiency. Amorphous silicon module makers produce modules in the 6 percent to 7 percent efficiency range and cadmium telluride king First Solar mass manufactures modules with an efficiency of just over 10 percent. Both of these technologies, however, are somewhat mature. CIGS makers say they will begin production at around 10 percent and move toward the high teens. At NREL, Noufi's team produced a 19 percent plus cell.
Another part of the appeal is the substrates. Although SoloPower will initially plant its solar cells on glass, it will move toward lightweight flexible substrates that are fed into factory lines on gigantic spools. This will reduce manufacturing and shipping costs and potentially allow SoloPower to integrate its modules into building materials. Building integrated photovoltaics in turn may allow the company to escape the low cost grind of the commodity market.
"The flat plate glass market is pretty difficult and it doesn't play to our technology strengths," said DiNardo. "You can't do flexible silicon."
But then there is the reality of it all. CIGS panels are not easy to manufacture and many companies have experienced delays. In 2007, SoloPower raised $30 million in a second round to build a 20-megawatt facility. The company had hoped to be shipping modules commercially by the third quarter of 2008.
Instead, it has a 10-megawatt facility. It has produced test modules and will start to ship evaluation units to customers in the third quarter. While most CIGS makers are still in pre-production or producing only small amounts of modules, some are moving fast. Solydra started production last year and has amassed $2 billion in orders.
To get to true commercial scale, SoloPower will need a $190 million loan from the government to build a commercial-scale fabrication facility. The loan, ideally, will come through in mid-2010, according to Harrus. Once the loan comes in, SoloPower will also have to raise some matching funds, a requirement of the government program.
If anything, SoloPower likely has a bit of a financial cushion. Sources last year told VentureBeat that SoloPower had raised nearly $200 million, which, weirdly, is average for a CIGS company.
Harrus wouldn't state how much SoloPower has raised but said, "We've accomplished everything today for less than $100 million and we still have money."
The CEO switch is similar to what occurred at Miasole, another CIGS vendor. At Miasole, founder Dave Pearce was replaced by Joseph Laia, a longtime figure in the semiconductor manufacturing equipment world. DiNardo only became a VC in 2008. Before that, he spent 25 years in chips.