Global Solar Takes World's Largest CIGS Project Live

Thin-film manufacturer Global Solar Energy has flipped the switch on its 750-kilowatt solar project in Tucson, Ariz., which it claims is the world’s largest system using solar cells made of copper-indium-gallium-diselenide. The company, which makes CIGS solar cells, announced this week that the project is fully operational.

Global Solar, which in March said it was breaking ground on the solar field, previously had said the project would go live between September and November. Last month, the Gunther Portfolio reported via an anonymous source that it had actually been turned on at the end of October.

MMA Renewable Ventures, which pays the upfront cost of renewable-energy projects for commercial customers in exchange for long-term agreements to sell the resulting power to those customers, financed the Global Solar system and owns and operates it.

The system will help power the thin-film company’s 40-megawatt factory and is expected to defray about 25 percent of the facility’s power needs during the day. Any surplus electricity the system generates will flow out to the grid under a contract with Tucson Electric Power Co., which previously owned Global Solar.

In July, Tim Teich, the company’s VP of sales and marketing, told me that the factory was running at a rate of between 5 and 10 megawatts per year, with two of five lines in operation, and he said the plant was on track to reach its full capacity by the end of this year.

The company expected the factory, which opened in March, to produce about 20 megawatts of cells this year and 40 megawatts next year, then to expand to 140 megawatts of production by 2010. Teich also said in July that the company already had sold out of this year’s planned capacity by signing contracts with five unnamed customers.

The company also plans to build a second plant, expected to have the capacity to produce up to 35 megawatts of cells, in Berlin. That factory is expected to begin production this year and to reach its full capacity next year.

Founded in 1996, Global Solar is different from most other thin-film companies in that it doesn’t plan to sell thin-film panels. Instead, it will sell strings of thin-film cells that its customers will frame into panels. The company claims the business model makes it easier to transport its product.

While Global Solar hasn’t released its expected costs or prices, Jeffrey Britt, VP for technology, told me in March that the company expects its cost model will allow its customers to be able to profitably sell panels for as little as $1.50 per watt. That’s the threshold that Prometheus Institute president Travis Bradford had forecast would be necessary for thin-film manufacturers to survive a solar shakeout he anticipated as a result of higher supply compared to demand.

Of course, other thin-film companies also are aiming for low cost. No. 1 thin-film manufacturer First Solar (NSDQ: FLSR) already has smashed through Bradford’s forecast threshold, reporting a panel cost of $1.08 per watt — by far the lowest in the industry — for the third quarter.

Meanwhile, several other thin-film companies also showed signs of progress this week.

Oerlikon Solar plans to announce Thursday that a German factory has opened the first thin-film solar factory using its micromorph technology. Oerlikon had previously announced orders for its micromorph tandem solar line from Auria Solar Co. Ltd. in Taiwan, Pramac SpA in Italy and Next Solar S.A. in Greece, among other customers. The technology deposits two layers of micromorph and amorphous silicon, and the company told Earth2Tech that the technology will make it the first to hit the “magic number” of 10 percent efficiency for thin-film solar panels.

Ascent Solar Technologies Inc. (NSDQ:ASTI) also announced efficiency progress this week.

The company said its flexible thin-film panels were able to convert sunlight into electricity with up to 9.64 percent efficiency, as verified by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

While other CIGS manufacturers have announced higher conversion efficiencies — HelioVolt Corp. has announced 12.2 percent efficient cells, for example — most of those been from thin films on glass panels. Flexible panels on plastic tend to have lower efficiencies than panels on glass.

Still, Global Solar in January claimed it was the first to reach a consistent 10 percent average solar-cell efficiency with flexible cells from its 4.2-megawatt demonstration plant. It’s worth noting that some efficiency is usually lost when solar cells are converted into panels, so cell efficiencies can’t be directly compared to panel efficiencies. That means Oerlikon might still be the first to reach 10 percent efficiency for thin-film panels even though Global Solar already has produced cells with 10 percent efficiency.

Image courtesy of MMA Renewable Ventures.