There's a solar show in Valencia, Spain (the European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference) this week and solar companies have to announce something.  SoloPower, a San Jose, California based CIGS photovoltaics vendor announced "a watershed breakthrough" in a breathless press release for their flexible CIGS PV panels in what they called "a first-ever achievement for the PV solar industry" that makes the firm the "first ever to receive UL Certification for a flexible CIGS module."

SoloPower is targeting the commercial and industrial flat-roof market with applications that favor a lightweight, non-penetrating flexible solar solution.  The SoloPower panel can be rolled up and walked on. 

SoloPower would appear to be going after the same rooftop market as ECD, except they're doing it with a far more efficient product.  SoloPower modules boast a 10.5 percent to 11 percent efficiency (compare that to ECD, which ranks somewhere in the 6.5 percent range) and Tim Harris, the CEO says that he expects CTO Mustafa Pinarbasi to improve upon that number in the coming quarters.  The flexible units can be affixed to the roof with an adhesive or mounted on a lightweight non-penetrating rack.

The company claims that lighter weight makes installation easier and reduces the cost of balance-of-system components.

The 120-employee company occupies a 110,000 square foot building on the southern outskirts of San Jose, Ca.  Capacity for 2011 will be about 85 megawatts and growing as the firm moves from making one-foot-wide, 2000-foot-long rolls to making one-meter-wide, 6000-foot-long rolls on their manufacturing floor.

According to the company in a recent interview, capex is "way under a dollar" and production cost is "competitive," which means it's too early to know -- or too high to mention.

SoloPower is in discussions with the Department of Energy to potentially obtain a loan guarantee under EPACT 2005 Section 1703 to support the construction of an additional multiple-line production facility.

Dr. Rommel Noufi, Principal Scientist of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is quoted as saying, "The certification of SoloPower's flexible CIGS module is an important step toward the realization of lightweight, high-power, flexible solar modules with potential to expand the roof-top solar market and reduce balance of system costs.  It is an important milestone for the industry.  I feel very gratified to see, after a 30-year career in Thin Film CIGS PV at NREL, the technology become mature".

Not mentioned in the press release is that Noufi served as VP of Research at SoloPower from February of 2008 to May of 2009 -- a questionble omission.

SoloPower’s thin-film modules were tested to UL 1703, the standard for safety for PV module manufacturing.

SoloPower's CIGS competitors are also aiming towards UL and IEC approval.

Jean-Noel Poirier of Global Solar Energy said in an email that, "We have started the process and are planning to obtain the UL certification (as well as the IEC and the JEC certifications for Europe and Japan) in December this year."

According to Brian Blackman of Ascent Solar, another flexible CIGS solar vendor, "If you don't have IEC - then UL is just a symbol.  We've submitted our modules for IEC approval.  From our perspective -- it's irrelevant unless you have the IEC - you have to have the 20 year lifetime."

UL is more of a safety test -- making sure people don't get electrocuted when they drive a nail through the PV panel.  It's important but probably less crucial than IEC testing which entails accelerated stress testing under various climate conditions, mechanical impact tests, wind and snow load and power output guarantees.  Flexible CIGS still has to pass that hurdle.

Flexible amorphous silicon panel vendor Unisolar could be in a much more competitive situation when these three vendors come to market with full certification.