Solar Frontier outshines rivals with thin film solar deal


While so many startups in the U.S. and Germany have been trying to build commercial-scale businesses off of making solar panels made of  copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS), really only one is making strides at any kind of scale. On Tuesday Japan’s Solar Frontier announced that it plans to ship up to 150 MW of copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) panels for a power project in California.

Solar Frontier, part of Showa Shell, completed a 900 MW factory in late 2010 and brought all of its production lines into commercial production mode by the summer of 2011. The first shipment of its CIGS solar panels to customers took place in February 2011.

Solar Frontier first announced it was starting construction of the new factory in September 2009 and promised to have the plant reaching commercial production in 2011. The company did just that. Compare that with the CIGS startups that have repeatedly failed to meet their production and shipment targets, such as Nanosolar, MiaSole, AQT Solar, HelioVolt and Solyndra.

To be fair, I suppose, Solar Frontier didn’t reach this stage in a  short amount of time, nor was it under the same kind of pressure that startups might face, from raising funds to delivering certain amount of returns to its venture capital investors during a given time. The company said its labs began to focus on developing CIGS technology in 1993 and started mass-producing CIGS panels in 2007. It built a second plant two years later, and together the two factories had 80 MW of annual production capacity.

The company was previously called Shell Solar and then Showa Shell Solar until it changed to Solar Frontier in 2010 (see company history). Before Showa Shell created a solar subsidiary, it had been working on solar technology since the 1970’s but focused first on using crystalline silicon to convert sunlight into electricity. The first commercial shipment of crystalline silicon solar panels began in 1983. Eventually it ditched that technology and worked on using amorphous-silicon before settling on CIGS

Silicon technology remains dominant in the market today. Companies that use alternative materials, such as CIGS and cadmium-telluride, have tried hard to erode that dominance. But so far only a handful of those so-called thin-film technologies (because the materials are more thinly layered than silicon), have achieved production scales that can rival the large silicon solar panel makers in the world. First Solar (s FSLR), which makes cadmium-telluride solar panels, is one of them.

If built, the 150 MW solar power plant in Kern County touted by Solar Frontier Tuesday would be the largest CIGS power plant in the world and among the biggest of any kind of solar plant. The company delivered the first 26 MW of panels last quarter to developer enXco. The project will split into two phases: the first 60 MW to come online by the end of this year. The second phase should be done by June 2013.

EnXco, part of EDF Energies Nouvelles, last year signed a deal to sell power from the Catalina project to San Diego Gas & Electric.

While the 150 MW deal is impressive, it doesn’t mean Solar Frontier is an indisputable success in the thin film solar world. With a gigawatt-scale factory, the company needs to line up enough orders to keep the billion-dollar factory working. Many large solar manufacturers have closed factories or significantly cut their production in the past year because the market was beset by a glut of solar panels and plummeting prices.

Photo courtesy of Solar Frontier

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