Thin Film Helps Sierra Solar Power Bulk Up


Another thin film solar startup is giving it a go. Sierra Solar Power, a 5-month-old Sunnyvale-based solar startup, recently raised $6.86 million in a series A round led by GSR Ventures according to PE HUB. Sierra founder and CEO Zhang Xu told us in a phone interview that the company hopes to eventually raise between $60 million to $70 million over three rounds.

Thin film companies like Nanosolar have been able to raise a lot of money over the last few years, though some think that private equity for thin film companies is starting to dry up. (check out our recent interview with Nanosolar’s CEO here).

Xu wouldn’t go into too much detail regarding the technology, but he says the company uses silicon on a glass substrate. Other thin film technologies like Konarka use plastic substrates or metal substrates.

Thin film technologies commonly use one of three different types of semiconductor materials: amorphous silicon, and non-silicon based alternatives copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) and cadmium telluride. Xu says the company has a unique process that reaches efficiencies of 15%, with an end-goal of 20%, comparable to crystalline solar.

Whether the company will make good on its goal is anyone’s guess. Other thin film startups are running into hurdles when it comes to efficiency. CIGS startup Miasole is struggling to meet its sun-to-electricity efficiency targets of 8 percent to 10 percent, according to this CNET article.

The thin-film solar market is set for major growth. According to Greentech Media’s latest report “The Future of Thin Film Solar,” thin film PV is estimated to grow to nearly $5 billion in module sales by 2010, making up 20 to 33% of the solar market, up from just 7.5% in 2006 with module sales between $500 million and $600 million. But production delays and low sun-to-electricity conversion rates have put a damper on many venture-backed companies in the thin film market.

As far as the cost of silicon, Xu isn’t concerned. “We use so little silicon, even though the spot price is $200 per kilogram, we use less than 5% to 10% of the solar wafer.”

Sierra splits its company between Silicon Valley and China. “We take advantage of both sides of the Pacific,” Xu said. “The cost advantage (for manufacturing) in China, with the marketing and R&D in the U.S. taking advantage of the best of Silicon Valley.”

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