Konarka Technologies Inc. said Tuesday it has opened a plant that could produce up to 1 gigawatt per year of its organic photovoltaic "power plastic" material by the start of next decade.

Konarka is one of a handful of companies exploring thin-film solar cells that use organic materials. Organic materials are carbon-based substances that are used instead of silicon, cadmium, copper and other minerals that can be found in commercial solar cells today.  

But whether the Lowell, Mass.-based company will find buyers for that much organic photovoltaic material remains to be seen, given that it still isn't as efficient at converting sunlight into electricity as its inorganic thin-film competition, analysts said.

Other organic solar cell makers, such as Dyesol, Heliatek and G24 Innovations, contend that their products can make up in low cost what they lack in efficiency (See Does Going Organic Require Exaggeration?).

Tests conducted by the federal National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which solar companies turn to for validation of their technologies, showed that Konarka's cells can reach 5 percent efficiency, said Konarka spokeswoman Tracy Wemett.

The company's goal is to reach 10 percent to 15 percent efficiency to compete with mineral-based thin-film cells now on the market, she added.

Konarka's new plant in New Bedford, Mass., formerly owned by Polaroid Corp., has converted Polaroid's printing systems to deposit the organic materials. The equipment prints the semiconductors onto flexible backings, Wemett said.  

Konarka has received more than $100 million in equity investments to date, Wemett said. In October 2007 it landed $45 million in private equity from the likes of Mackenzie Financial Corp., Good Energies, Pegasus Capital and Draper Fisher Jurvetson.

Low cell efficiencies have limited the appeal of organic solar cells, said Lawrence Gasman, principal analyst with NanoMarkets in Glen Allen, Va. Conventional polysilicon cells, which are widely used for solar panels on the market today, can reach efficiencies of more than 20 percent.  

NanoMarkets in May predicted that the organic photovoltaic market will generate about $1 billion in revenues by 2015 – respectable, but a tiny sliver of the photovoltaic solar market overall, Gasman said.

"I would be really, really surprised if they're saying they're going to be shipping a gigawatt of material in the near future," Gasman said of Konarka's plans.

Still, Konarka believes it will find a market for its plastic material. But instead of targeting utilities or builders of home and business solar power systems, the material could be used to turn portable consumer products - such as backpacks, umbrellas and tents – into mobile power generators.

The U.S. Army also is interested in Konarka's technology, and has given the company  $1.6 million to develop materials for soldiers in the field, Wemett said.

Nathaniel Bullard, a senior analyst at U.K.-based research firm New Energy Finance, said Konarka's strategy to capture what he called the "trickle charge" market could pay off down the road.

G24 Innovations began licensing another solar-cell technology developed by Konarka in 2006 to make small panels for charging cell phones and other electronic devices.

Konarka didn't disclose the cost of its New Bedford plant or how much its power plastic will cost to manufacture.

In other solar news, thin-film market leader First Solar (NSDQ: FSLR) broke ground Monday on a factory-expansion project on its Perrysburg, Ohio facility. The project will boost the plant's capacity to about 192 megawatts.

Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar pleased the market in July by reporting a 57 percent jump in net income and tripling of revenues in the second quarter of 2008. (See First Solar Posts Blockbuster 2Q.)

But it and other solar companies have seen their shares slide this week amidst a deepening financial crisis that many fear may lead to a drying-up of credit for new solar facilities (see VCs to Solar Startups: A Deal You Can't Refuse.)

Shares of First Solar fell $31.71, or nearly 20 percent, to close at $128 per share on Tuesday.

First Solar, which has delivered strong financial performances, will likely to weather the financial storm, Bullard said.

"I think there may possibly be a flight to safety effect, with the best listed companies continuing to perform the best" in raising capital for expansions, he said.

Also on Tuesday, Germany solar panel maker SolarWorld said it had opened its second U.S. manufacturing plant in Hillsboro, Ore. The former silicon chip plant, bought from Japan's Komatsu Group last year for $40 million and upgraded with more than $400 million, will have a capacity of 500 megawatts, the company announced.

In July, SolarWorld opened a 100-megawatt plant in Camarillo, Calif., that produces silicon solar panels and silicon ingots for its U.S. plants in Vancouver, Wash. (See Intersolar Sparks Solar News).

SolarWorld's chief financial officer Philipp Koecke told Bloomberg earlier this month that the private company had raised $800 million in cash and had $10 billion in orders.