The Re-Invention of Intel-Backed Solar Company Sulfurcell

After a decade of tech development and lining up investors including Intel (s INTC), solar thin film company Sulfurcell has retooled its business plan that includes a name change, a technology shift and a focus beyond selling solar panels, company executives said Thursday.

The German company is now called Soltecture to reflect its marketing and sales of an entire solar energy system, from its own solar panels to other equipment such as racks and inverters. The company is also moving from its original recipe of using copper, indium and sulfur (CIS) for the solar panels to creating panels from copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGSe).

“It’s time for a new chapter. Sulfurcell was a name based purely on technology,” said Henrik Krupper, chief sales officer Soltecture, during a press conference call.  “We now focus on optimizing and standardizing complete solutions around buildings.”

Soltecture started commercial shipments of its CIGSe panels to European customers two months ago, Krupper said. The company is still making CIS panels but plan to add gallium to them (CIGS) starting in the second half of this year, said Nikolaus Meyer, Soltecture’s CEO and co-founder, during the same conference call. The company considers CIGS its first-generation product and CIGSe the second generation. For the U.S. market, the company plans to launch the CIGS panels in July and the CIGSe panels in August this year, Krupper said.

Soltecture is one a crop of solar companies that have started launching CIS/CIGSe solar panels in recent years. This type of technology foregoes the use of silicon, the most common material found in solar panels today, in favor of alternatives that have the potential to rival silicon panels in performance and price. These startups are facing tough competition from the silicon technology competitors these days, however, because the price of silicon panels has fallen by more than 50 percent in the last few years. This price decline has taken place just as these CIS/CIGSe technology developers began to sell products and build new factories.

The change in chemistry improves the percentage of sunlight that gets converted into electricity. Adding gallium improves the efficiency by 1 percentage point, Meyer said. The CIGS (with sulfur) panels should be able to achieve an average of 8 percent aperture efficiency while the CIGSe panels get 12 percent.

A solar panel typically comes with a silver-color frame to box-in the solar cells, which make up the blue or black surface of a panel. Aperture efficiency refers to what percentage of sunlight that the solar cell surface can convert to electricity. Solar panel makers’ customers care more about the “total area” efficiency that takes into account the area of the frame. The size of a panel affects the efficiency calculation, and installers or project developers want to know how many panels they can fit into a given project space.

The average total area efficiency of a Soltecture’s CIGSe panel would be around 11 percent, Meyer said. Other CIGSe solar panel makers have reported similar figures. MiaSole, for example, is making CIGSe panels at 10.5 percent of average total area efficiency.

Soltecture most recently raised €18.8 million ($25 million USD) from Intel and other investors. The round, announced in January this year, makes it possible for the company to boost its sales and marketing efforts, which have become more critical now that the company has moved into mass production. The company, founded in 2001, started pilot production of its CIS technology in 2005 and increased that 35 MW of annual production capacity last year.

Like many of the fellow CIGSe panel makers, Soltecture wants to expand production beyond 100MW in order to better compete with silicon solar companies. CIGSe companies such as SoloPower and Stion have lined up public and private funding to build factories.

Soltecture changed its name from Sulfurcell to make clear its ambition to be a provider of a complete set of solar electric equipment, something Meyer told me about in January this year. The company has designed its ultra thin, black solar panels to become part of a building by replacing, for example, part of a façade. To do so will require more specialized designs of the racks that support the solar panels and the placement of other components. Soltecture has designed its own racks and outsources inverters and other pieces of equipment for its offering.

Aside from pursuing building-integrated projects, Soltecture also is targeting commercial rooftops and touting the light weight of its systems for those roofs that may not hold the heavier setup that uses silicon solar panels. Fellow CIGSe solar panel makers Global Solar and Solyndra also are promoting their gear for commercial rooftop and building-integrated market segments.

Photo courtesy of Soltecture