France's Soitec, one of the last companies with a hope of commercializing concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) technology, has abandoned its solar business.
The company will "refocus" its efforts "on its electronics business," according to the firm.
The company uses opaque language, but the message is clear: Soitec is exiting this business as quickly as possible. A quarterly earnings letter reads, "Soitec has initiated efforts to realize value of solar energy business combining significant restructuring measures going forward and will assess [the] most appropriate scenario to extract value from its solar-related assets in compliance with its obligations towards all solar stakeholders."
Soitec builds its own multi-junction semiconductor and high-concentration PV systems, and also helps develop and finance its projects. Soitec's technology allows photovoltaic III-V semiconductor layers to bond together with a minimum of lattice mismatch. Soitec has a 44-megawatt project in Touws River, South Africa still in development and approximately 75 megawatts' worth of CPV projects in the ground.
The company expects to lay off 100 employees in the U.S., with more to come. The layoffs come at the CPV module factory in Rancho Bernardo which received $25 million in a DOE grant and has produced 5 megawatts of CPV product so far, according to the firm. The 176,000-square-foot factory was to have an annual capacity of 200 megawatts and create 450 jobs. Soitec claims to have invested $200 million in its construction. The $25 million grant was from the DOE's SUNPATH program, which aims to foster a competitive American solar manufacturing base.
Filling the factory to capacity depended on a project in Imperial Valley, Calif. with Omaha-based Tenaska Solar Ventures going through. But Tenaska switched to less expensive, less risky technology earlier last year.
A red flag was raised when Gaetan Borgers, the executive VP of Soitec's CPV group, left the French firm to become president of the solar unit at Emirates Capital in August. Another red flag was the recent business and PR mishap that came with Soitec announcing sale of its PPAs to another developer, only to see that deal apparently collapse.
CPV competes with silicon-based solar, a losing bet for CPV firms, as well as most thin-film solar firms looking to displace silicon. The price to install silicon-based PV has plummeted due to volume and competition from China, but CPV has not been able to benefit from this price drop, as its reliance on high-precision trackers and high-cost semiconductors has negated any efficiency gains.
As we've reported, CPV has a 0.25 percent global market share of the 40 gigawatts of PV being installed in 2014. That figure comes courtesy of an optimistic forecast of 100 megawatts installed this year. But compared to crystalline silicon, CPV's riskiness in terms of price, reliability and bankability has prevented the technology from achieving commercialization and scale.
We've logged the attrition in the CPV industry and are keeping an eye on the surviving aspirants. SunPower is the only U.S. manufacturer of note. The company claims that its low-concentration C7 tracker has up to a 20 percent lower levelized cost of electricity than competing technologies, contending that it provides "the lowest levelized cost of electricity for utility-scale solar power plants available today."
There are other CPV firms out there. Arzon is the company that remains after the venture capitalists departed from Amonix. That firm will be announcing a new product and business strategy this week. Semprius, REhnu, Morgan Solar, Solar Junction, Banyan Energy, Cogenra, SolarSystems, Zytech Solar, Magpower, Ravano Green Powers, Cool Earth Solar and a few other startups are still trying to compete with crystalline silicon.