Thank heaven for the little things.

The European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference, also known as PV Sec, is underway this week in Valencia, Spain, and some of the early buzz is around the materials and components that can make slight differences in efficiency or cost.

"There is a lot being spent on incremental efficiency improvements," said Alain Harrus, a partner at Crosslink Capital who is in Spain at the moment.

Honeywell, for instance, today announced a new series of dielectrics and dopants for crystalline silicon solar panels. These various materials can accelerate manufacturing, slow down degradation and/or boost efficiency. It all depends on what you add to the recipe. Meanwhile, 3M announced it will double the manufacturing capacity for its Scotchshield back sheets for modules in 2011. The material eliminates the need for solvents in that part of the manufacturing process. Over the past year, Dow Chemical has promoted silicone as an encapsulant for silicon modules.

Expect this trend, which started last year, to continue. The relentless price declines in silicon have made investors and potential customers skittish about alternative types of cells and modules. The chemical giants, meanwhile, want to increase their market share in solar. You also have small companies like Innovalight that have largely switched from trying to produce solar cells on their own to selling materials and licensing intellectual property to low-cost solar makers that don't necessarily have state-of-the-art research groups. Thus, if you want to form a solar startup in the near future, think solar chemistry.

"The mood is a lot better than last year," Harrus adds. "Silicon is going well and amorphous is in the rear view mirror...Pricing for silicon is around $50, $55, $60 a kilogram."

The looming question is what kind of cap Germany might place on its solar demand in 2011.

Other news from Valencia:

--SoloPower announced UL certification for its flexible CIGS module. (Crosslink invested in SoloPower.) The announcement follows a host of announcements from Miasole, AQT Solar and Global Solar regarding commercial production of CIGS. Efficiencies range from 10 percent and above, which means greater efficiencies than amorphous silicon and cadmium telluride can offer.

Sulfurcell, for instance, announced a 10.7-percent-efficient module at the show. The company also said it would start to make high-performance copper indium gallium selenide solar cells, the most common type of CIGS cells, along with its copper indium gallium sulfur cells in 2011. Maybe  the commercial onslaught of CIGS is finally upon us.