Sun Well Solar began mass producing thin-film solar panels last week and plans to install 180-megawatts of manufacturing capacity before the end of next year, the company said at the Intersolar conference in San Francisco on Tuesday.

The Taiwanese company has lined up customers in Spain and Germany for its panels, which it makes with amorphous-silicon equipment from Oerlikon Solar, said Bob Wong, chairman of CMC Magnetics, which owns Sun Well Solar. Sun Well installed a 46-megawatt production line earlier this year.

The solar-panel maker has agreed to purchase equipment for two additional production lines from Oerlikon. Sun Well Solar plans to install a 60-megawatt line by the end of this year and a 120-megawatt line by the end of 2009, company officials said. The lines will use Oerlikon’s newer, tandem-junction technology that adds a layer of microcrystalline silicon to the panel, in addition to a layer of amorphous silicon.

Sun Well Solar represents CMC Magnetics’ venture into the solar energy business. CMC makes media storage devices such as DVD discs and USB drives, as well as touch-screen panels through a subsidiary called Transtouch Technology.

The fast-growing solar industry has attracted many companies in the electronics industry. Both industries use silicon as the primary material, and making solar panels is similar to making flat panels for TVs and other gadgets.

For example, Applied Materials, the world’s largest maker of chip-manufacturing equipment, jumped into the solar business in 2006 and now competes with Oerlikon. Intel, whose processors power most of the world’s computers, spun off a solar cell company, SpectraWatt, last month (see Chip Giants Delve Deeper Into Solar).

The similarities also explain why the Intersolar conference in San Francisco this week is held jointly with SEMICON West.

Sun Well Solar and Oerlikon are part of the emerging thin-film solar sector. Thin-film advocates say the technologies have the potential to convert sunlight into electricity at a lower cost than conventional technology, which uses polysilicon. Some companies are developing thin films from different sets of materials, including cadmium telluride (CdTe) and copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS).

Thin-film solar panels have yet to reach the same efficiency as polysilicon-based panels, however, and few companies have commercial products. Thin-film panels on the market today typically can convert 7 percent to 11 percent of the sunlight into energy, while conventional panels can reach efficiencies as high as 18 percent.

Within the thin-film solar sector, cadmium-telluride panels have had the most success, thanks to First Solar (NSDQ: FSLR).

Sun Well Solar is betting on amorphous-silicon technology for now, but the company is also exploring other thin-film processes, Wong said. The company ordered its first set of equipment from Oerlikon last year and has a goal of reaching a 1-gigawatt production capacity in four years.

Wong said he expects the cost of making its panels will drop to $1 per watt within two years and reach $0.75 per watt by 2015. The company is currently selling its panels for 2 ($3.18) per watt.