China Solar Power (CSP) has bought ThinSilicon to boost the performance of amorphous silicon solar panels that will be rolling off its factory lines.

Hong Kong-based CSP began commercial production at its first factory, located in Yantai, China, only last week, and it intends to integrate ThinSilicon's technology into its manufacturing operation, said Manny Krakaris, co-founder and advisor of CSP, said Tuesday.

"When you first start a plant, you want to optimize throughput first before you start to optimize [solar panels] efficiencies," Krakaris said. "A big reason for the acquisition of ThinSilicon is because its technology could boost efficiencies."

ThinSilicon was founded three years ago. Its website lists Sequoia Capital, Firelake Capital Management and Spring Ventures as its investors.

Tano China Capital Management, a subsidiary of Tano Capital, founded CSP in 2007. Charles Johnson, former co-president of Franklin Templeton Investment, founded Tano Capital in 2004.

Tano, along with Taiwanese investment firm Sun Ace, are the two major shareholders in CSP, Krakaris said. CSP declined to disclose how much it paid for ThinSilicon.

The acquisition came at a time when amorphous silicon solar panel makers are beginning to make more noises about new customers and projects (see Masdar PV: First Commercial Project and Factory Expansion). Many of these companies began commercial production only in the past year and half, when global demand for solar tanked.

Menlo Park, Calif.-based Signet Solar, for example, recently announced a deal to supply 10 megawatts of panels to Tejados Fotovoltaica de Industriales in Spain. Signet is developing a 1.8-megawatt project in the Czech Republic with BSC-Solar.

Amorphous silicon developers also face tough competition from makers of crystalline silicon solar panels, which dominate the market today. Silicon panels have efficiencies in mid-teens, and SunPower makes panels at around 19 percent to 20 percent efficiency.

The first-generation Amorphous silicon panels typically achieve 6 percent to 7 percent efficiency. By adding a layer of microcrystalline silicon, the solar panels could get to 8 percent when using equipment from companies such as Santa Clara, Calif.-based Applied Materials.

Auria Solar, which uses equipment from Oerlikon Solar in Switzerland, said it was able to achieve 9 percent efficiency by incorporating its own technology, the company said earlier this year.

Still, the lower efficiencies have prompted critics to dismiss amorphous silicon panels as niche products (see Amorphous Silicon: Losing the Shakeout?).

The technology's proponents say they can beat the crystalline silicon players in manufacturing costs. They held up First Solar, one of the world's largest solar panel makers, as a case study.

Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar makes cadmium-telluride panels with about 11 percent efficiency, but its able to produce them cheaper than the crystalline silicon competitors.

"It will be the survival of the fittest. We like our timing," said Krakaris, who declined to disclose CSP's manufacturing cost. "We are scouring the world for the best technologies to give us the best advantage."

CSP is rolling out single-junction panels at its Yantai factory, Krakaris said. The company expects to reach full production of 32 megawatts per year in 2010. The factory is using equipment from Ulvac in Japan.

CSP is building a second factory, located in Jiangyin, China. The Jiangyin factory will have an initial, annual capacity of more than 60 megawatts when completed, likely by the end of 2010, Krakaris said.

ThinSilicon's technology will play a key role in CSP's ability to attract customers. ThinSilicon has developed a different cell structure than conventional single or tandem junction amorphous silicon devices, and the company has demonstrated its ability to produce highly efficient cells, said Krakaris, who declined to disclose more details about the technology.

ThinSilicon had been able to fabricate tandem junction cells (amorphous silicon plus microcrystalline silicon) with 12.5 percent efficiency, and that translates into 9 percent panel efficiency, the company said.

CSP is targeting China as its primary market, and decided to do so before the Chinese government announced a series of incentives this year to finance solar power installations.

"We took a hard look at Europe, China, India and the rest of Asia. We decided that China reps the greatest opportunities for manufacturing and for consumption of solar panels," Krakaris said. The government incentives are just "icing on the cake."