Today's thin-film solar market, if you want to call it a market, is basically First Solar and everybody else.
First Solar has an annual capacity of about two gigawatts followed distantly by Q-Cells, Solar Frontier, Solyndra, and MiaSolé in CIGS, Abound Solar in CdTe, and Sharp in a-Si.
The true challenger to First Solar in the wide-open thin film-field has yet to emerge.
Venture firms have both helped and hindered the advancement of the thin-film ecosystem. Their herd mentality has spawned a score of thin-film PV manufacturers but you'd be hard pressed to find a shared set of process steps amongst the crowd.
Johanna Solar uses a sequential process like Avancis, Solar Frontier, and Stion. Coevaporation is used by Ascent (on a polyamide substrate), Global Solar, Solyndra, Q-Cells, and Würth Solar. Nanosolar uses a CIGS ink as does ISET. SoloPower uses an electrodeposition process (similar to Odersun) and MiaSolé utilizes reactive sputtering, simliar to AQT. That's just a partial list.
This fleet of VC- and corporate-funded thin film solar firms has served to thinly spread the talent and capital pool.
One of the many aspirants for the crown of "Second Solar" is Solexant, a cadmium telluride ink startup helmed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and semi-legend Brad Mattson. Mattson, an early Applied Materials employee who later founded Novellus and Mattson Engineering (now-public semiconductor equipment suppliers) took over the reins of the company a few months ago from founder Damoder Reddy.
Mattson also spent a little over a year as a partner at VC firm Vantage Point Venture Partners where he focused on solar firms and shuttered solar startup Senergen.
Founding CEOs like Reddy parting with their VC-funded, thin film startup is more the rule than the exception and has occurred at MiaSolé, NanoSolar, HelioVolt, Solyndra, SoloPower, etc.
Reddy said in an interview late last year that Solexant synthesizes "semiconducting nanoparticles" on a "scale never done before." The nanoparticles are applied to a flexible metal foil substrate using an ink-type solution, and although the current photovoltaic material is cadmium telluride, the process is materials-agnostic. Roll-to-roll coating is a 50-year-old technology according to the former CEO, and "the secret sauce is in the ink."
The new CEO agrees with the old CEO, saying, "The ink is the secret sauce." The ink is applied using a relatively cheap tool and and the absorber materials are less expensive -- no spendy sputterring targets are used. Solexant's panels are lighter since they use a single front sheet of glass and backsheet, rather than the typical '"glass sandwich." Solexant has moved to a cell-based rather than a monolithic architecture in the interest of getting to market faster.
Mattson, with a stellar pedigree in semiconductor manufacturing, is naturally biased in his viewpoint -- he views equipment and materials as the crucial piece in becoming competitive in the solar market.
In Mattson's observation, "Every solar company says, 'We're not a semiconductor company,' " and "What they've missed is the equipment and materials part of the program." He asserts that "All of the cost is dependent on equipment and materials," and that PV is, in fact, a semiconductor, adding, "It's just a diode."
Mattson compares the solar panel price plunge we're living through to the DRAM commodity cycle. DRAMs, like PV panels, are a "strategic commodity" that most industrial regions have tried to command. The industry undergoes an overcapacity which crushes ASP which then stimulates market growth. But just as demand increases, firms are shutting down capacity. This cycle has happened in DRAMs a number of times and the solar industry is seeing it for the first time. Although there is a price decline in solar, "You can build a business model around a 10 percent annual price decline," according to Mattson.
It's still early days at the 50-employee Solexant. I toured the factory in San Jose, California last week and although there certainly are PV cells being produced -- this is not a company anywhere near full-scale production.
Solexant and Mattson just closed a $23.4 million inside round from Firelake, Birchmere, DBL Investors, Trident Ventures, and Medley Partners. Mattson said, "Now is the perfect time to be investing." He adds that VC money is only one part of the financing strategy. Of course there's government funding but the role of strategics will be more important. Mattson claims that there are six independent industries looking to get into this industry including semiconductor firms and oil firms.
As with any new entrant in solar, module costs approaching $0.50 have to be reachable in order to compete in the coming years. And capital to scale to hundreds of megawatts and eventually gigawatts has to be lined up and efficiently utilized. It remains a daunting challenge faced by Solexant and any other new aspirant in the thin-film market.