Thin Film Solar Underdog MiaSole Looks Ahead to New Plant, Solar Shingles

Thin film solar startup MiaSole was once the posterchild of the over-hype of the CIGS solar world. CIGS, which stands for the four materials that make up the solar cell (copper, indium, gallium, selenium) has for years been promised as the next generation of solar technology, has brought in billions of dollars in venture capital and government investment, and yet has delivered very little commercial product. At one point MiaSole’s former CEO Dave Pearce reportedly predicted annual revenues of $100 million by the end of 2007 — a ridiculous estimate in hindsight.

But that was then. Now MiaSole is in the unusual position of being the underdog with the weak reputation, but one of the few CIGS firms that is commercially selling solar panels, ramping up production with a new plant planned in the southeastern United States, and is even looking ahead at new products. Joseph Laia, who took over as CEO of MiaSole in late 2007, told me in an interview last week that the company expects to ship 20-30 MW of solar panels by the end of 2010 (its first commercial customer Chevron was announced in March) and likely hundreds of MW of panels by the end of 2011. Laia also showed me prototypes of a next-generation flexible building-integrated solar panel, and a solar-embedded shingle that the company has been working on (sorry folks they wouldn’t let me take any pictures).

But before MiaSole’s next-gen gear becomes a viable product, the company is putting all of its efforts into ramping up production. Laia, who came from a long career in semiconductor manufacturing — at both Novellus and KLA-Tencor — is a manufacturing guru, and said when he joined the company the startup’s manufacturing was “a mess.” The efficiencies were all over the map back then, explained Laia, because one day the machines would run in one way and the next day they would run another way. Uniformity, precision, consistency, are all things that Laia has drilled into the system, and sites chip giant Intel as one of his manufacturing inspirations.

Laia is also a rare expert in the “sputtering” technology that MiaSole uses, where atoms are blown off a material by force and sprayed onto a substrate. Sputtering is the cheapest way to make thin film solar, asserts Laia, who points to the inside coating of a bag of potato chips as an example of a dirt cheap sputtering product. Laia was such a good fit for the leadership role, that MiaSole investor and Kleiner Perkins managing director John Doerr actively recruited the exec.

As proof that MiaSole’s manufacturing has been given the Intel-directive, Laia gave me an extensive tour of the factory floor. MiaSole creates its solar material by taking miles of thin flat steel and running it through its $5 million sputtering machines, which sputter the four different CIGS materials on it in succession. Each machine runs at 2 feet per minute, and eventually cuts the material down into small solar cells. The panels, which are currently assembled mostly by robots in another factory down the road from the sputtering machines, is made up by 88 cells.

Laia says MiaSole will be able to produce solar for 50 cents per watt capex in the current facility by the end of the year (Update: that’s the cost for the purchase of the factory equipment to produce the entire panel which is the cell and the module). Laia says MiaSole’s manufacturing costs are 85 cents per watt. Competitor and thin film solar darling First Solar says it can manufacture solar for under $1 per watt.

MiaSole might have come a long way, but it still has a long road ahead. The company has raised by some estimates between $300 million and $350 million dollars over the past almost a decade and is just starting to generate revenues. I would guess it needs to raise more to properly ramp up production.

While Laia dismisses competition from the other CIGS players like NanoSolar, Solyndra and HelioVolt, all of these companies are in the same boat: moving into commercial scale production with a promising technology. In particular Solyndra won the first DOE loan guarantee and has been planning an IPO. Laia says that MiaSole can make CIGS for far cheaper than Solyndra and that its DOE loan guarantee was as a result of the federal government looking at an early market. The company we are looking to go head to head with is First Solar, says Laia.

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