Solar CIGS startups are still getting funding


The refrain “are we there yet?” could very well apply to the many solar thin film startups that a few years ago thought they would command sizable factories and market shares by now. But delays in technology development and fund-raising, not to mention the difficult months of 2011 when solar panel prices crashed, mean the waiting game continues.

That’s the case for AQT Solar, a Silicon Valley startup that announced on Thursday it has just raised a series B round of $18.7 million (it had set a goal of $21.7 million). It’s good news that the company was able to secure the funding, which it plans to use for adding a second production line in its hometown of Sunnyvale, Calif.

But the current goal it has set for itself in 2012 is more modest than what it was hoping to achieve back in 2010, when it inaugurated its first production line in Sunnyvale and again when it announced in early 2011 a plan to build a factory in South Carolina.

After announcing that factory plan, AQT remained quiet for the rest of the year. It secured $2.8 million in debt and options or warrants, according to its filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. What happened to its factory plan? The company wouldn’t say.

I did find this interesting write-up in September by the nonprofit South Carolina Policy Council that pointed to inactivity at what was supposed to be the factory site in Richland County. The project was delayed because AQT was still working on getting the necessary factory equipment.

AQT, founded in 2007, set out to make solar cells made out of copper, indium, gallium and selenide (CIGS), and it wanted to do it cheaper and reach mass production sooner. The method it settled on was to deposit the semiconductor materials on small pieces of glass that are the same size as silicon solar cells. Silicon solar cells are the most common on the market today, and the factory equipment for assembling them into solar panels is widely available. AQT’s cells are meant to be drop-in replacements of silicon cells, and it was targeting manufacturers that could just use their existing equipment to make CIGS panels.

In comparison, most other CIGS companies are depositing the materials on a large sheet of metal or glass, and the various processes that are used to turn them into solar panels are not the same as the assembling silicon solar cells.

The factory that AQT opened in Sunnyvale back in 2010 was supposed to have an annual production capacity of 15 megawatts, and it was aiming to boost the capacity to 30–40 MW by the end of 2011. It talked about delivering 50 MW of solar cells in 2011, and it named Solar Enertech as one of its customers at the time.

AQT’s press release on Thursday said it now plans to expand its production capacity to “more than 30 MW by mid-year.” Its cells are currently found in 100-watt panels, and it expects the size to go up to 180 watts by the end of 2012. Company spokesman Merrill Freund declined to say who is making and selling solar panels with AQT’s cells.

Freund also declined to divulge the investor(s) who put in the latest $18.7 million round, which brings the total amount of money it has raised to close to $40 million, the company said. It would be interesting to know if the investors are outside the United States or outside the usual VC circle. Over the past year, two other CIGS startups — Stion and HelioVolt — have found financial help from large technology manufacturers in Korea and Taiwan.

CIGS technology remains in the “emerging” category in the annals of solar industry. With the infusion of capital, Stion, HelioVolt and SoloPower are now working on building new factories. MiaSole is looking for a partner to help it grow, and Nanosolar still has customers that it can talk about. And Solyndra is, of course, no more.

Photo by GigaOM


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