Summary:

While many of the next-gen thin film solar companies are in a make-or-break stage of ramping up to high volume production, a good deal of these companies don’t seem to have much trouble finding customers. Nanosolar says its scored a 1 GW deal with European utilities.

Nanosolar Germany

Many of the next-generation of thin film solar companies are caught in a make-or-break stage of ramping up to high volume production, eventually looking to reach 1 GW per year in solar panel manufacturing. But a good deal of these companies don’t seem to have much trouble finding customers to buy the panels, once they actually produce them. Thursday morning, seven-year-old thin film solar company Nanosolar announced that it’s entered into a supply agreement to sell 1 GW worth of solar panels to German utilities Belectric and Plain Energy, and French utility EDF Energies Nouvelles.

Mind you that gigawatt figure is over a six year or so period. Nanosolar is only now producing around 1 MW worth of solar panels per month. In a tour I did of the factory last October, there was a lot of empty space and room for growth.

Later this Summer, however, Nanosolar hopes to ramp up production at the San Jose factory to around 7 to 8 MW per month, or the equivalent of about 115 MW per year. Then after Nanosolar hits that milestone, it will look to raise funding to about double that capacity to 250 MW of annual production per year by 2013, still in its San Jose, Calif. factory. Beyond 2013, the plan will be to build another 500 MW factory, likely somewhere near its San Jose factory, and by 2014 ramp that second factory up to 750 MW. So voila: 1 GW.

Well, that’s the plan anyways. And at least Nanosolar seems more likely to stick to its timeline, than the company would have two years ago under the leadership of then-CEO and founder Martin Rocheisen. Back in 2009 Rocheisen announced that the company had reached “high volume production,” though clearly Nanosolar was far from that stage then.

Today, Nanosolar, is in a similar stage as some of its next-gen thin film solar competitors. MiaSole has about 50 MW of annual production capacity and expects to cross over 150 MW by the end of this year. To get it there, earlier this week, MiaSole said it had brought in some Intel execs to get some tips on ramping up to mass production. Solyndra, which focuses on rooftop solar panels not ground mounted utility systems, is now set to produce 200 MW of its tube-shaped solar panels annually, and the company hopes to boost that to 300 MW worth of solar panels produced annually by 2013.

Nanosolar, like MiaSole, is looking to chase First Solar, which is by far the thin film solar leader, but is using an older technology. First Solar had 1.4 GW of capacity in 2010, and it plans to reach 2.7 GW by the end of 2012. Japanese company Solar Frontier also expects to reach full scale production of its next-gen solar panels at its 900MW solar factory in Miyazaki prefecture, Japan, this summer.

Nanosolar, Solyndra, MiaSole and Solar Frontier all produce solar panels using copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS), a combination that requires precise layering and distribution of the materials to achieved desired efficiencies. CIGS panels have the potential to rival the more popular silicon panels in efficiency and price, but the vast majority of CIGS companies are small and in the process of working on beefing up their manufacturing operations.

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