HelioVolt Corp. opened its first manufacturing plant Thursday. The plant can produce up to 20 megawatts of solar thin-film panels, the company said.

The Austin-based startup said its hometown plant will make copper indium gallium selenium panels, or CIGS. The company has claimed that its CIGS cells can convert 10 percent to 12 percent of sunlight into energy.

That's among the highest efficiencies claimed by makers of CIGS cells; the thin-film technology competes against cheaper but less efficient cadmium-telluride and amorphous silicon thin-film technologies now in use.

HelioVolt financed the plant construction with a $101 million Series B round of venture capital funding it closed in October 2007 (see HelioVolt Gets More Cash for Thin Solar).

HelioVolt did not disclose how much its cells or modules will cost to make. But John Langdon, vice president of marketing, told Greentech Media in May that the company expected to drive its costs below $1 per watt.

"Since their inception they've done very well fundraising, and that's a really good sign for them" amidst a worldwide financial crisis and credit crunch, said Paul Karayan, analyst with Lux Research in New York. "I think for a CIGS technology, they look like they're pretty competitive."

HelioVolt has plenty of competition in the thin-film space, of course.

Thin-film leader First Solar (NSDQ: FSLR), which makes cadmium-telluride films, expects to have 720 megawatts of production by the end of this year and more than 1 gigawatt by the end of 2009. The company has announced cell costs of about $1.14 per watt for the first quarter of the year and cell efficiencies of 10.5 percent.

According to a report by Greentech Media and the Prometheus Institute last month, First Solar should be closely followed in the thin-film production race at the end of 2010 by Sharp Corp., with 416 megawatts of estimated production of amorphous silicon panels.

United Solar Ovonic, with 254 megawatts of estimated production or amorphous silicon; Nanosolar, with 249 megawatts of estimated production of CIGS, and Miasolé, with 178 megawatts of estimated production of CIGS. (See Thin-Film Solar Set to Take Market Share From Crystalline Solar PV).

Since that report was released in September, Solyndra emerged from its stealth mode to announce that it had begun volume production of its CIGS panels in July (see Solyndra Rolls Out Tube-Shaped Thin Film). The Fremont, Calif. startup has signed $1.2 billion worth of contracts, including one with GeckoLogic that was announced Thursday (see Solyndra Signs $250M GeckoLogic Deal).

CIGS makers, while not as far advanced in production, do hold an efficiency advantage over their cadmium-telluride and amorphous silicon competitors, noted Paul Maycock, president of solar-electric consulting and research firm Photovoltaic Energy Systems in Williamsburg, Va.

"But their efficiency depends on closing the water problem," he said. CIGS cells are susceptible to being corroded by water, meaning they need to be carefully encapsulated to avoid early deterioration.

As far as HelioVolt's efficiency claims go, they aren't the highest in the CIGS space, Maycock noted.

Nanosolar said it has created tools that can produce CIGS cells with a 14.5 percent efficiency, but wouldn't say whether the figure applies to cells actually being produced (see Nanosolar Creates Largest Thin-Film Tool).

And Solyndra said the cells it makes in high-volume production can convert 12 percent to 14 percent of sunlight into electricity (see Solyndra Rolls Out Tube-Shaped Thin Film).

Additionally, HelioVolt is looking into the building-integrated photovoltaic field with a deal announced in May to work with Architectural Glass & Aluminum Co. to build HelioVolt's technology into exterior glass facades common in skyscrapers and other modern buildings (see HelioVolt Is In the Building).

A HelioVolt spokesman said Friday that the company plans to produce the aforementioned building-integrated products within the next few years.