Solar industry leaders talk about the need to installsolareverywhere. Some companies are taking that literally by developing new products they claim can expand solar power infinitely.

This week, as Solar Power International kicked off in Las Vegas, Hanergy-owned MiaSolé announced the launch of its new “flexible, thin, ultra-light, high efficiency, shatterproof modules” that the company expects to open up new solar markets and enable manufacturers to integrate solar in unique ways.

This is the first major product announcement for MiaSolé since it was acquired by the Chinese renewable energy company Hanergy at a fire-sale price in 2013. (China's Hanergy had its shares suspended for one year in 2015 due to an investigation over financial manipulation. It now says its thin-film division is profitable.)

According to the company, the flex series panels are up to 17 percent efficient, which is significantly higher than previous flexible solar technologies. The panels come in a bendable form factor that’s four times lighter than traditional rigid solar panels, and just 2.5 millimeters thick. The product can be configured in various sizes and adapted to any building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) application by attaching directly to surfaces with a peel-and-stick adhesive.

Anil Vijayendran, vice president of product sales and marketing at MiaSolé, said the product represents "a generational shift compared to previous limitations of rigid glass panels, and has reached a new level of efficiency and adaptability.”

MiaSolé makes thin-film copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) solar cells and panels -- a technology that has attracted (and burned) billions of dollars in venture capital and put multiple companies out of business.

When crystalline silicon PV began dominating the market, it became very difficult to differentiate CIGS products purely on cost, said Vijayendran. MiaSolé was making a double-sided glass panel and had sold roughly 90 megawatts of the product when Hanergy acquired the company in 2013. After raising around $500 million in venture capital, MiaSolé sold for just $30 million. With the acquisition, MiaSolé pivoted from making rigid glass CIGS panels to the flexible design and has effectively been operating in stealth mode -- until now.

“At the time in the industry, glass was a very saturated market, so it was difficult to compete, and we had a very good differentiator here,” Vijayendran said. “The technologies became available in terms of encapsulation -- water-barrier protection -- that allowed us to pivot to something that would be reliable for 25 years. That's why we made the move, and then, over the last few years, developed the technology, developed the product, seeded the market, and then built a factory in China.”

With Hanergy’s support, MiaSolé built a 100-megawatt plant in Heyuan, China that recently started running at full volume production. The China factory is where most of MiaSolé’s manufacturing will be done. The company has another pilot factory in Silicon Valley where the company designs and tests new product configurations.

According to Vijayendran, new opportunities for flexible solar technology are limited only by people’s imaginations.

Efficiency no longer a barrier

On a recent tour of MiaSolé’s manufacturing plant in Santa Clara, a flash test showed a sample panel measuring 16.3 percent efficiency. Vijayendran said this was one of the earlier panel generations and that the latest models have tested as high as 17.5 percent efficiency. MiaSolé expects to be making 18-percent-efficient panels by the end of next year.

A benefit of CIGS technology is that there’s still a lot of headroom for efficiency to improve, said Vijayendran. CIGS also requires a less energy-intensive manufacturing process, he said. Furthermore, it has the ability to be deposited on a wide array of surfaces and substrates.

MiaSolé isn’t the first to company to make flexible thin-film BIPV panels. Uni-Solar brought a flexible panel design to market that came in different form factors and adhered to various surfaces. But the company fought a losing battle against cheaper and more efficient crystalline solar panels, and ultimately went bankrupt in 2012.

Vijayendran chalked up Uni-Solar’s troubles to the fact that its panels couldn't get beyond 10 percent efficiency, not because there isn’t demand for BIPV solutions.

“As you look at the adoption of solar, it’s increased steadily, but it’s the low-hanging fruit -- it’s the ground-mounted traditional applications. But there’s a lot of need for solar that can’t be served by that technology,” he said. “To really serve that need, whether it’s on transportation or on tents, awnings and off-grid buildings that can’t take the weight, you need this type of (BIPV) technology.”

And according to Elon Musk, BIPV is also “beautiful.”

Tesla gets in on BIPV

On a recent earnings call, Musk hinted at plans for SolarCity, which Tesla is in the process of acquiring, to manufacture and sell building-integrated solar panels. "It's a solar roof as opposed to a module on a roof,” said Musk. "I think this is really a fundamental part of achieving a differentiated product strategy."

Rather than only sell solar panels that can be installed on someone’s existing roof, SolarCity wants to sell customers a new roof with the solar power capabilities built into it -- "which is quite a difficult engineering challenge, and not something that is available really anywhere else that is at all good,” Musk said.

However, as GTM's Eric Wesoff pointed out, engineering isn’t the biggest issue, it’s reaching the end customer. “You're looking to drive a completely new type of product through the very conservative roofing channel -- and that's a daunting marketing challenge. Traditional solar modules on racks may be less than aesthetically perfect, but they have a distribution channel and technical expertise,” he wrote.

Having closely tracked the solar market for years, Wesoff added that “PV panels and roofing have very different roles, and I've observed that combining the two compromises both at a premium cost.”

To integrate solar panels on roofs, SolarCity would have to closely partner with homebuilders like Lennar or Meritage, or become its own roof manufacturer. It’s not clear that either pursuit is worthwhile.

The moment for BIPV?

In MiaSolé’s case, the company has already started to form strategic partnerships and sell to customers. This week, MiaSolé announced a new sales channel partnership with Indiana-based Inovateus Solar, which will be the first major distributor of MiaSolé’s flex series products. Inovateus is predominantly focused on the commercial roofing market and will design and install the BIPV products. MiaSolé is also working with U.K.-based BIPVco, an offshoot of Tata Steel, which specializes in turning buildings into solar power stations.

BIPVco has developed a proprietary solar panel fusing process and is leveraging Tata’s manufacturing ability to develop solar-integrated roofing products for residential and commercial customers. The company previously worked with Dow Chemical, before that company pulled out of the BIPV market. According to BIPVco CEO Daniel Pillai, Dow’s product was nowhere near the same quality level as MiaSolé’s.

“Efficiency is no longer a deal-breaker,” he said. “We believe that with the MiaSolé product, we have the right combination of performance, aesthetics, price and durability to compete and offer payback.”

“The roadmap going forward looks very promising because the cells are being made at low volume so far,” Pillai added.

Pillai and Vijayendran both say they’re confident this is the moment for BIPV, and Musk’s interest underscores it. The technology has now been proven and is operating at efficiency levels nearly on par with silicon, which is getting the attention of more roofing companies. Vijayendran estimated the market for BIPV rooftops alone to be worth several gigawatts, particularly when looking abroad. 

“This technology lends itself to areas where construction is just not as robust as, let's say, here in the U.S.,” he said. “So China, India, South America, Africa -- where not only does the infrastructure or the architecture not lend itself to traditional solar, but also the grid infrastructure may not exist, so [customers] would be more likely to skip the grid and go right to distributed, which plays right into our capabilities from a product standpoint.”

This week saw another product release on the CIGS thin-film front. SoloPower Systems, which also produces flexible panels, announced a new kit for off-grid applications in developing countries that includes a panel, battery, connectors, a charger and LED lights. SoloPower is also offering a pay-as-you-go financing option.

Transportation applications and other off-grid applications for flexible thin-film solar could represent another 50 megawatts to 100 megawatts per year, Vijayendran added. MiaSolé is already working with ClearWorld, a U.S.-based company that is deploying MiaSolé flex series panels on street lights. The solar manufacturer is also working with eNow, which is integrating flexible solar panels on trucks.

By using solar instead of burning gasoline to power a truck’s electronics and lift gates, a truck operator can save about 90 cents per kilowatt-hour, based on today’s gas prices, according to Vijayendran. In most truck applications, that means payback takes less than a year. MiaSolé anticipates that a lot of vehicle fleet owners go this route because the savings are already there today. Vijayendran admitted that other applications, while interesting, make less sense.

“The challenge is weeding through a lot of the ideas,” he said. “There are a lot of great ideas and maybe a lot of crazy ideas, and the difference between the two is tough to know until you go down the path a little bit.”

A potential $9 billion market

Solar-integrated building façades are applications that don’t make sense at scale. “It looks really cool, but if that's all you're known for, then you get pigeonholed into something that's not economically effective, and then it's a very small market,” said Vijayendran.

While the economic case may be tough to make, it hasn’t stopped companies from developing building façade products. This week, NSG Group, the owner of the Pilkington brand and one of the world’s largest glass producers, along with panel producer Solaria, announced they’re entering into a collaboration agreement to manufacture and produce semi-transparent BIPV solutions. NSG Group plans to launch the first products in Europe and later expand to the Middle East and beyond.

The cost of BIPV is a looming concern. Vijayendran said a simple CIGS thin-film panel designed for a roof is in the $1-per-watt range, but he was hesitant to give more specific pricing since the panel price doesn’t reflect labor cost savings from installing and integrated solar solution. The applications for flexible thin-film solar are also diverse and have considerations beyond cost.

“We say this to our customers: If you have an application that can use a silicon panel and your interest is just the payback, then it's tough for us to say you shouldn't use that panel,” he said. “What we're going for is the applications that cannot use traditional PV, because of weight, because of wind, and because of other considerations.”

Without any racking, BIPV technology might stand up well to wind, but it is burdened with the added concern of water leakage. To ensure the panel is properly insulated, MiaSolé places its panels in water and applies a current to test for any leakage issues. But even if the solar cells are safe, there could still be an issue of roof ponding -- where a dip in the roof submerges the panels and reduces efficiency.

The adhesive is another potential issue. Can it hold up for decades? MiaSolé insists its technology can because the adhesive is tested in conditions from -40 degrees Celsius to 90 degrees Celsius and has performed well through vigorous UV and outdoor testing.

Still, despite these challenges, the BIPV market could turn out to be big. One report from the advanced materials sector research group n-tech found that the market for BIPV products will be worth more than $9 billion in 2019. That’s enough of a market to keep MiaSolé and others interested.