In a CIGS photovoltaic universe full of noisy VC-funded startups like Solyndra and Nanosolar, Global Solar Energy is notable for its low profile, longevity, and actual production volumes -- and the fact that they've achieved eleven percent average solar cell efficiency in large-scale manufacturing. The firm has 75 megawatts of production capacity at two sites.

I spoke with Jean-Noel Poirier, the newly installed VP of marketing and business development, who is fresh from a stint at First Solar.

Global Solar claims to be the only copper indium gallium diselenide manufacturer in full-scale production on a flexible (stainless steel) substrate.

Other recent notable achievements from Global Solar:

  • The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has confirmed that Global Solar Energy is the first company to exceed the 13 percent efficiency mark using CIGS thin films on a flexible stainless steel substrate (Although Nanosolar claims, "NREL independently verified several of our cell foils to be as efficient as 15.3 percent. At 15.3 percent efficiency, they are the most efficient printed solar cell of any kind as well as the most efficient cell on a low-cost metal foil."  These hero experiments are nice, but it's production efficiency, yield, and cost that matters, anyway.).
  • Global Solar announced today that its technology is powering the largest CIGS-based single rooftop installation in the world.  The system is producing 820 kW of solar electricity for a plastics manufacturer in Orgiano, Italy, and was integrated and installed by Spain's Yohkon Energia and CDM Italy.  The second largest CIGS rooftop installation powers Global Solar's factory with 750 kilowatts in Tucson, Arizona (a.k.a. the show-me-your-papers state).

Global Solar has been selling CIGS products on a flexible substrate for more than six years and targets their technology for a variety of applications:

  • Portable solar chargers -- mobile power for consumer off-grid and military applications.  Obviously, price per watt is not the primary factor in this usage of solar; it's convenience and portability. A 62-watt portable product has a retail price of about $13 per watt.
  • BIPV -- Global Solar is a "supplier of choice" for Dow's massive solar roof shingle undertaking.
  • Modules -- GSE supplies "strings of cells" for module suppliers like Yohkon, which fabricate glass-sandwich solar modules from the GSE strings. GSE does not build the modules themselves.
  • BIPV -- GSE also targets the "BIPV" market segment of flexible glue-on solar, as currently served by Uni-Solar with their amorphous silicon technology.  Poirier insisted that most warehouse roofs and many commercial and industrial rooftops in Europe have weight limitations and wind load issues that would be well served by the glass-free low-weight profile of flexible substrates. He called it "a niche market but a big niche market."  He also saw Global Solar as being 46 percent more efficient than the ECD product, which could win GSE the race in that Special Olympics event.

Solyndra and Nanosolar have booked staggering amounts of CIGS business. They've shipped megawatts. GTM Research's solar analyst, Shyam Mehta, stated that Solar Frontier (the former Showa Shell Solar) sold approximately 43 megawatts of CIGS PV in 2009 (see Thin Film 2010 and Market Outlook report).  MiaSole, AQT, SoloPower, NuvoSun and others are also trying to solve the CIGS riddle.

The current metric for photovoltaic suppliers is dollars per watt.  Take a look at First Solar's quarterly reports -- this figure tends to be prominently featured.  It's inescapable and needs to be confronted to determine system cost and levelized cost of energy (LCOE).  Global Solar's Poirier said, "Our technology can get below one dollar per watt."

But he would not disclose the firm's current price per watt. 

If CIGS players or other aspirants in solar want a piece of the solar pie, they are going to have to drive down costs to meet the price leaders. Alternately, they are going to have to achieve such high efficiencies as to change the Balance of System / installation cost equation.