HelioVolt Raises $8.5M in Debt, Close to Prime Time?

UPDATED: Thin film solar company HelioVolt has largely adopted a code of silence for more than a year, but it appears to be slowly emerging from that cocoon. The company has borrowed $8.5 million and begun to, once again, tout its technology.

The Austin-based company has sought to raise $10 million in debt, so it still has about $1.5 million to go, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday. The money will no doubt come in handy for the company as it continues its slog toward commercial production.

Founded in 2001, HelioVolt currently has a 120,000 square feet of pilot factory at its headquarters. The company posted a video of a factory tour this week to give a little peek into its production process of making copper, indium, gallium-selenide-based thin film solar panels. Earlier this week, the company announced it had put its solar panels under “accelerated lifetime” testing, a process that subjects the panels to intense simulated sunlight and other conditions to see if they can withstand prolonged exposure in the real world.

Doing the accelerated lifetime testing allows the company to show performance data to potential customers and investors. But to ship panels for installations in key markets such as the U.S. and Europe, HelioVolt will need to secure UL and IEC certification from an outside laboratory.

UPDATE: HelioVolt’s vice president of business development, Iga Hallsberg, said in an email that the company expects to get the UL and IEC certification in the second quarter of this year. After that, the company will start shipping to customers. The company needs to expand production over the long run, and its current, 20MW factory doesn’t have room for that. She declined to talk about the expansion plan

“Our production is allocated for the next 3 years and to a handful of select partners in the US, Europe and Asia.  However, we recognize the need to scale beyond our small factory (unfortunately we have no option to expand our facility) and are currently in strategic discussions to do that,” Hallsberg said.

The company has only begun to pull back the veil that has shrouded its operation since mid-2009, when it announced it had corralled former chief operation officer of First Solar, Jim Flanary, as its new chief executive. The company’s previous CEO (and founder) B.J. Stanbery stepped down earlier that year to become the chief strategy officer and chairman of the board. When the company announced Stanbery’s new role, it also said it had hired a new chief financial officer, Sanjeev Kumar, the former CFO of Energy Conversion Devices.

Back in 2007, the company was hoping to start commercial production in the first quarter of 2009. It opened a factory in Austin in October 2008, and the factory was supposed to be able to produce 20 MW of panels at some point (HelioVolt was mum about the progress of getting its equipment up and running). Then reports came that the company had to lay off about 15 people. In February, 2009, the company told me its mass production wouldn’t start until early 2010.

So what has the company been doing? Improving its technology, of course. Earlier this week it said the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has verified that the company’s full size panel can reach 11.8 percent efficiency. Now that number is good as a reference, but it doesn’t mean the company will be able to mass produce panels with that efficiency. Typically, the rate of sunlight-to-electricity conversion is lower in commercial products than what the best panel can achieve during a lab testing. Click here to see a few technical presentations from the company. UPDATE: Hallsberg said the average efficiency of panels rolling off the pilot line recently was “over 10.5 percent.”

So it remains to be seen whether HelioVolt can produce panels that can compete in efficiency if not pricing against its CIGS peers, many of which have reported between 10-12 percent efficiencies for panels that are already rolling off their production lines. Over the past year, these CIGS companies also have made progress on boosting their solar panels’ performance and raising money to open new factories of expand existing ones.

Earlier this week, Sulfurcell said it had raised $25 million to expand its production of its second-generation product. Earlier this month, we reported that SoloPower had bagged $51 million, and later announced it had secured a $20 million loan from Oregon to build a 75 MW factory. Mississippi, meanwhile, has offered Stion a $75 million loan to build a 100 MW factory there. Stion’s CEO Chet Farris told me a few weeks ago that the company had inked $700 million in sales contracts and was looking to do an initial public offering to raise $100-$150 million in 2012 to further expand its manufacturing.

HelioVolt raised $31.5 million in debt and options last year, according to its SEC filing. Previously, it had raised a B round of $101 million and an A round of $8 million.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (subscription required):