They have raised huge capital. They have built factories and even attracted some buyers. Could this year be the starting point when stronger CIGS players emerge?
In a new solar report forecasting production and comparing technologies, Greentech Media analysts certainly believe so.
"We expect some of them to ramp up production in 2009 – they are getting to commercial volumes. That will give them a definite edge when it comes to cost," said Shyam Mehta, a senior analyst at Greentech Media. Mehta co-authored the report, "PV Technology, Production and Cost, 2009 Forecast," with Travis Bradford, founder of the Prometheus Institute and a Greentech Media advisor.
By 2012, companies that make copper-indium-gallium-selenide solar panels could produce 12 percent, or nearly 3 gigawatts worth of the worldwide supply of solar panels, the report said.
CIGS is among several in the thin-film solar technologies that use little or no crystalline silicon to make solar cells. Although the majority of the panels today are made with crystalline silicon, thin-film panels are gradually gaining market acceptance.
CIGS panels aren't as efficient at converting sunlight as the crystalline silicon variety. But efficiency isn't the only selling point. CIGS advocates say they can offer cheaper products, which would then lead to a lower cost of buying and installing a system.
Nanosolar, Miasolé, Honda Soltec (owned by Honda the carmaker) and Showa Shell are some of the CIGS companies that could set themselves apart by expanding their production capacity quickly to deliver that low-cost promise, Mehta said. Showa Shell uses only copper, indium and selenium (CIS).
Both Nanosolar in San Jose, Calif., and Miasolé in Santa Clara, Calif., have raised huge sums of private equity. Nanosolar attracted $300 million only last year while Miasolé raised $50 million in late 2007 and was reportedly looking for $200 million in 2008.
To compete effectively, CIGS companies will have to have the capacity to produce 500 megawatts worth of panels by 2012, Mehta said. Today, many of them have less than 100 megawatts in annual production capacity.
Showa Shell, meanwhile, expects to start producing CIS cells at its second, 60-megawatt factory in Japan this year. Its first factory has a 20-megawatt annual capacity. The company said it plans to start building a new plant in 2011 that would be capacity of producing 1 gigawatt worth of CIS cells.
While the report takes into account the current economic crisis, it remains difficult to predict which solar companies will likely survive with minimal bruises. Austin-based HelioVolt, which just opened its first factory last October, recently laid off about 15 people. Fremont, Calif.-based Solyndra, which has announced $1.5 billion worth of contracts with customers, recently lost its chief scientist, Markus Beck, to First Solar.
CIGS companies will not only have to compete against each other, but also against a host of others that use different types of technologies.
Crystalline silicon cell maker Suntech Power already has reached a 1-gigawatt annual capacity. First Solar, which uses cadmium tellurium in its cells, expects to have an annual capacity of 1.1 gigawatts by the end of this year, according to its most recent quarterly filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Companies making cadmium-telluride panels could produce nearly 1.5 gigawatts, or 6 percent, of the global supply by 2012, the reported said. Amorphous-silicon panels are likely to reach roughly 3.5 gigawatts, or 15 percent, while crystalline silicon panels will still dominate with 15.6 gigawatts, or 66 percent.