When it comes to thin-film solar, despite the amount of hype expended and capital invested, there are only two players at credible gigawatt-level production scale: America's First Solar with its cadmium-telluride technology and Japan's Solar Frontier with its CIS materials system.

Both of these firms have continued to raise the bar for performance records of hero cells in the lab. It's clear from the trajectories of both firms that those lab processes will eventually be incorporated into production lines and commercial products.

Working with the Department of the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), Solar Frontier hit a 20.9 percent conversion efficiency on a 0.5cm2 CIS cell. This beats Solar Frontier’s earlier world record of 19.7 percent efficiency and edges First Solar by one-tenth of a percentage point to claim the world title. Results have been verified by the Fraunhofer Institute. Solar Frontier's efficiency record was selected from a substrate produced with a sputtering-selenization formation technique -- the same technique used in the manufacturer's factories.

If recent history offers any lesson, First Solar will soon respond to this turn of events by beating out Solar Frontier with a new record of its own.

First Solar asserts that it can equal efficiencies of average c-Si modules by the end of 2015. The company believes it can hit ~19.5 percent efficiency in 2017 (that's up from a previous target of 17.2 percent). The firm also sees credible long-term paths to 23-percent-efficient and 25-percent-efficient CdTe cells.

First Solar's average solar panel efficiency rose to 13.2 percent in 2013 and 13.4 percent in Q4 2013. The best production line in Q4 was putting out panels with an average of 13.9 percent. These gains in efficiency, plus other improvements, resulted in a reduction in cost per watt to 63 cents, a decrease of 16 percent over the last two quarters. The firm reduced the average module manufacturing costs on its best plant from $0.64 per watt in the fourth quarter of 2012 to $0.53 per watt in the fourth quarter of 2013 (excluding underutilization and upgrades).

The only other vendor with an existing high-volume offering in the thin-film solar space is China's Hanergy, which has gained its expertise in thin film with fire-sale acquisitions of MiaSolé, Global Solar Energy, Alta Devices and Solibro. The company has announced a number of performance achievements, as well as capacity expansions.

Shyam Mehta, GTM Senior Solar Analyst, had this to say about the thin film market: "Thin film's relevance to the solar market at large has been on the wane since 2009, when it reached a high of 19 percent of total module production. The reasons for this are simple: barring some notable exceptions, thin film is more expensive, less efficient, and less bankable than Chinese crystalline silicon technology, which dominates the marketplace today. While thin film production levels have increased steadily over the years, they have been easily outpaced by growth in c-Si output, and despite what is expected to be a strong year for industry leaders First Solar and Solar Frontier, GTM Research estimates indicate that thin film will only make up 10 percent of total module production in 2014, its lowest share of the market since in 2006."