HelioVolt expects to start shipping its thin-film solar panels to customers later this year, though mass production won't begin until early 2010, or about a year later than earlier planned.

The Austin-based startup plans to start shipping samples to customers – and products for certification – in the second half of this year, said a company spokesman Thursday. Last October, HelioVolt opened its first factory capable of producing 20 megawatts worth of panels per year.

Back in 2007, HelioVolt had hoped to start commercial production in the first quarter of 2009.

Whether or not the delay hurts or helps the company remains to be seen. On one hand, some competitors such as Global Solar are already  shipping solar cells made with copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS), the kind HelioVolt plans to make.

Advocates say CIGS will provide cheaper power than the crystalline silicon panels that dominate the market today. Prices are also declining overall in solar. Thus, HelioVolt will be coming in the market at a time when it could even be a more difficult competitive environment.

On the other hand, commercial builders and utilities, the likely large buyers of CIGS panels, are still in the testing and evaluation stage.

Only a handful of CIGS companies said they have started commercial shipment, including Solyndra, Nanosolar and Honda. Nanosolar has said little publicly about its production and shipment activities, however.

All these CIGS companies plan to expand their manufacturing capacity in the next few years, and aren't likely to take meaningful shares of the overall solar market until 2011, said Shyam Mehta, a senior analyst at Greentech Media (see Report: CIGS Could Supply 3GW of Solar Panels by 2012).

In other words, it may not miss much in 2009.

HelioVolt already has downsized a little, having laid off about 15 employees recently. It also faces the challenge of finding a new leader to guide it through the critical stage of getting ready for commercial production.

On Wednesday, the company said its founder B.J. Stanbery had stepped down as its CEO to become its chief strategy officer. Stanbery also now serves as the chairman of the board. A board member, Ron Bernal, is the interim CEO while the company looks for a permanent replacement (see HelioVolt Replaces CEO, Gets New CFO).

Join industry leaders and influencers at Surviving the Shakeout: Greentech Media’s 2009 Solar Industry Summit in Phoenix, Ariz., April 14–15.