[pagebreak:Competition for First Solar?] Global Solar Energy plans to officially open a 40-megawatt thin-film plant in Tucson, Ariz., on Thursday. 

The company already has been making strings of copper-indium-gallium-diselenide (CIGS) cells at a 4.2-megawatt demonstration plant the past three years. But the new plant will be the Tucson-based company’s first step into mass production.

"The opening of [Global Solar’s] plant in Tucson is a remarkable event," said Tom Kimbis, acting director at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technology Program, in a written statement. "Production from this facility will help satisfy the strong demand for solar product across the world."

Global Solar expects to begin production at the new plant this month, producing 20 megawatts of thin-film strings this year before ramping up to 40 megawatts, said Jeffery Britt, vice president of technology.

And the planned 40-megawatt capacity is only the first phase of construction at the facility. The company already is beginning to purchase tools to add the capacity for 100 megawatts more by the end of 2009 or early 2010, he said.

Global Solar also said it is commissioning a 35-megawatt facility in Berlin and is breaking ground on a 750-kilowatt solar field connected to its Arizona plant. The field is expected to produce about 25 percent of the facility’s power needs during the day, with any surplus flowing out to the grid under a contract with Tucson Electric Power Co., which previously owned Global Solar.

The Global Solar announcements are signs that thin-film solar competition could finally be heating up.

After all, First Solar (NSDQ: FSLR), which makes cadmium-telluride (CdTe) films, has had nearly all of the thin-film market to itself in the last couple of years (see First Solar Rides High, Hedge Fund Picks: Solar, Energy Storage, Water … and Biofuels, Solar Sector Heading For a Shakeout and Thin Films Lead U.S. Solar Production).

The company has 210 megawatts of annual capacity -- by far the world’s highest thin-film capacity -- and has announced plans to add 480 megawatts more in the next few years (see Thin Films Lead U.S. Solar Production and Thin-Film Solar Production to Leap Forward).

"Frankly, I’m really surprised that nobody has put up a big challenge to First Solar," said Rob Romero, a managing partner at Connective Capital, at a conference last week.

CIGS developers hope to give First Solar a run for its money.

One such company, HelioVolt Corp., in December said it planned to begin production at a 20-megawatt factory this year, and Nanosolar, another CIGS manufacturer, also in December said it had begun production at a plant in San Jose, Calif. (see Nanosolar Begins Production and HelioVolt on Nanosolar’s Heels).

The plant is expected to reach a production capacity of 430 megawatts per year, once it’s fully ramped up, but the company didn’t release its initial production capacity in December. The only hint Nanosolar gave was an announcement that it was supplying thin films for a 1-megawatt plant in Germany for Beck Energy, implying a production capacity of at least 1 megawatt.

The company also is building a solar-panel-assembly plant in Luckenwalde, Germany, expected to have the capacity to produce "multi-100" megawatts of panels (see Nanosolar Chooses German Town for Solar Plant).

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Unlike those competitors, however, Global Solar doesn’t plan to sell thin-film panels. Instead, it will sell strings of thin-film cells that its customers will frame into panels. The 210-by-100-millimeter cells fit into standard 2-meter-by-210-millimeter panels, and the business model makes it easier to transport the product, said Tim Teich, vice president of sales and marketing.

The company, which was founded in 1996, says its maturity also gives it an advantage over its competitors.

"You can’t underestimate the value of experience in this field," Britt said.

Travis Bradford, president of the Prometheus Institute, a Greentech Media partner, said it’s great news that a CIGS company will reach commercial scale, but added that it remains to be seen how quickly Global Solar and its competitors will grow beyond their first plants.

"There already are a few plants at that level; the question will be how many will scale up? How quickly and effectively can they ramp up à la First Solar?" he asked.

The company in 2005 said it would reach 40 megawatts of production in 2006 and 75 megawatts in 2007, then heftily exceeded those expectations, reaching 60 megawatts of production in 2006. The company now plans to reach at least 690 megawatts of capacity in the next few years.

"Step one is building the first commercial plant, and that’s great," Bradford said. "Second, its first commercial plant proves the economics and begins to prove the scale improvements. And third, it’s off to the races. It’s yet to be determined which CIGS companies have that kind of commercialization process. But kudos to [Global Solar] for getting to that point."

Bradford said it also makes sense to avoid the expense of shipping glass, but added that most thin-film companies have decided to produce both cells and panels.

"This would be the first thin-film company trying that model," he said. "Losing control of that [panel-making] process is, in some ways, a risky move for a thin-film manufacturer because, in the initial stages, people are going to judge the technology based on how the module works. If you make the technology, but don’t have control over the module, you’re at risk."

Still, he said, there are benefits to the strategy, such as avoiding the need to build module capacity near its customers.

In the end, the most important factor determining success will be the cost per watt, Bradford said. Last month, he forecast that thin-film manufacturers would need to profitably sell panels for $1.50 per watt to survive a coming solar shakeout.

"It all sounds very exciting, but what’s going to be very important is the economics of the plant," he said Wednesday, adding that the economics would be driven by the efficiency, cost per watt and life of the panels made from the company’s cells. "Some of those things you’ll know in the beginning, some things will take some time to feel confident about and some things -- like the efficiency and cost of production -- will improve over time."

While Global Solar won’t be making the panels itself, Britt said the company expects it will be able to beat that cost model, based on panel-cost estimates.  

Bradford said there is no technical reason that CIGS shouldn’t be able to meet or beat the cost-effectiveness of CdTe "when properly executed," and Bradford expects that at least two of the 25 companies trying to bring CIGS to market will succeed.

Increasing the production of CIGS has proven more difficult than expected so far, with plenty of demonstration plants but only two companies -- Nanosolar and Global Solar -- having announced a ramp up to commercial scale.

"It’s not that simple," Bradford said. "The reality is that the size plant they were using was certainly not of the same scale [as this new plant]. There are always issues when you start bringing new pieces of equipment and stringing them together."

Britt said Global Solar’s experience with its 4.2-megawatt plant will defray that risk, because the company plans to use similar technology at its larger plant.

He admits the risks exist. But if Global Solar is able to grow its capacity as quickly as it expects, it could well be the First Solar competitor the industry has been looking for.