MiaSole ships solar to India, looks for white knight

India wants a lot of solar energy, and it’s getting a lot of financial help from the United States. The Export-Import Bank of the United States has provided a $3.7 million loan to a project developer to build a 2 MW project in India using MiaSole’s thin films, said bank spokesman Phil Cogan Wednesday.

The 10-year loan, which has a fixed interest rate of 3.8 percent, goes to Texas-based Universal Solar System, which said it expects to complete the 2 MW project in the state of Gujarat by the end of the year. The bank’s mission is to promote the export of American products, and it provides loans or loan guarantees to companies that buy and ship American goods abroad. It’s playing a significant role in financing renewable energy projects, and for solar in particular. The bank approved the loan during fiscal year 2011, which ended in September, Cogan said. The bank had previously announced six other projects totaling $176.4 million for India during fiscal year 2011.

India is a new market for American solar manufacturers. The Indian government launched a national solar plan in 2010 and plans to subsidize 20 GW of grid-tied solar by 2022. Gujarat also has its own incentive program that offers feed-in tariffs, which are government-set pricing that aims to guarantee a good return.  The national program uses a competitive bidding process instead.

MiaSole joins other solar panel maker such as First Solar, SolarWorld, Abound Solar and even the now bankrupt Solyndra as beneficiaries of the bank’s financial support. For example, the bank guaranteed a $10.3 million loan earlier this year from KBC Bank NV in Belgium to finance a project by a German company that bought 3 MW of Solyndra’s panels that sported an unusual design involving tubes that were lined with copper-indium-gallium-selenide cells.

MiaSole’s future

MiaSole, too, makes solar panels using layers of copper, indium, gallium and selenium, but its panels resemble conventional, flat plate design. The Silicon Valley startup underwent a management shake out recently when it announced the arrival of new CEO, John Carrington last month. Carrington hailed from First Solar (s FSLR), where he was in charge of sales and marketing. 

Carrington replaced Joseph Laia, who arrived at the startup in 2007 to improve the company’s technology development. At the time, MiaSole was producing cells with five-percent efficiency, Laia told me previously, while other companies were making cells that were two or three times more efficient at converting sunlight into electricity. In October this year, the company began volume production of solar panels that achieved 13-percent efficiency. Solar panel efficiency is typically one or two percentage points less than cell efficiencies.

The company hunkered down for a while before it began commercial shipment in October 2009. Earlier this year, the company turned to Intel (s intc) for help on running its factory more efficiently.

MiaSole shipped 22 MW of solar panels in 2010 and was hoping to ship over 80 MW in 2011. It doesn’t appear the company will hit that goal. Since it began commercial shipment, the company has done 55 MW to date, Carrington said in a statement Wednesday. But it’s on track to scale up its annual production capacity from roughly 50 MW earlier this year to 150 MW by the end of this year, a company spokesman said.

To grow and compete in a market that has seen a dramatic decline in solar panel prices and the bankruptcies of three solar panel makers (Solyndra, SpectraWatt, Evergreen Solar) this year, MiaSole, which has raised several hundred million dollars, doesn’t think it can do it alone for much longer. Carrington told Reuters (s tri) this week that MiaSole needs a partner. Though he didn’t specify what the partner should bring, usually a startup looks for money and help in marketing and sales from a larger company, preferably a company familiar with the industry the startup is in.

Angling for this type of partnership has been a crucial strategy for not just startups, but established solar manufacturers as well. Manufacturing is such a capital-intensive business, and the weak global economy has made it particularly difficult to raise money for building factories in the past three years. French oil giant Total (s tot) bought a 60-percent stake in SunPower (s SWPR) for $1.4 billion earlier this year. Another CIGS startup, Stion, raised $50 million from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., which has licensed Stion’s technology and is gearing up to produce and ship CIGS solar panels in the first quarter of 2012. HelioVolt, another CIGS startup, lined up $50 million from Korean conglomerate SK Group and is looking at building a factory in Korea.