The man behind First Solar’s shuttered CIGS tech looks to new venture

When Markus Beck was offered the opportunity to commercialize a next-generation thin film solar technology with the backing of solar industry giant First Solar (s FLSR) three years ago, he jumped at the chance. But when First Solar cut his program — which created panels out of copper, indium, gallium and selenium in contrast to First Solar’s cadmium-telluride panels — last month, that dream evaporated. However, Beck tells us in an interview that he has a new goal on the horizon: line up over a hundred million from investors and commercialize a new process to make CIGS solar panels.

Beck tells us he would like to line up $130–$150 million for a new CIGS manufacturing process, and he would like to take that technology to its first commercial shipments in about three years. While the investment isn’t all that exorbitant, considering how much money venture capitalists pumped into Solyndra (roughly $1 billion) and Nanosolar (more than $500 million by mid-2008), the proposal may not be so enticing these days — and Beck knows it.

“For venture capitalists it’s too much money. For large corporations, it’s viewed as too risky,” Beck said.

First Solar days

During Beck’s keynote talk and interview at the Photon Thin Film Conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, he said that his team at First Solar was working on a 96 MW CIGS pilot line that could produce a 10 percent efficient panel initially, which was higher than his first projections of a 7–8 percent efficient panel. The efficiency also went up to an average of 11 percent after five months of running the line, Beck said.

Then the infamous silicon solar panel price collapse occurred that forced makers of other types of solar panels to lower prices as well. First Solar made the difficult decision to shut its secretive CIGS workshop. Many startups and their venture capital investors have pumped billions of dollars into commercializing CIGS technology, but it has yet to fulfill its promise. First Solar “saw its profits go away, and it had a system business that needed cash,” Beck said. “I wanted a joint venture (to continue CIGS development), but that was not what First Solar wanted.” The CIGS development work was 80 percent from completion, he added.

Before First Solar, Beck spent a big chunk of his career working on CIGS solar technology, and he was the lead scientist at Solyndra for nearly three years, as well as at Global Solar Energy, another CIGS thin film maker, in Arizona.

Life after First Solar

Beck doesn’t want to give up working on CIGS technology, but he acknowledged that finding investors to support his work will be tough these days. Many CIGS companies are young players that have yet to produce solar panels at any big scale. Some, like Stion and SoloPower, have small 10 MW pilot lines at their headquarters and are now trying to build their first commercial-scale factories.

Nanosolar just got a new CEO earlier this month after having shipped 10 MW (even though it was supposed to have started commercial production in late 2007). MiaSole is really pushing up the efficiency of its solar panels and can now claim that 13.5 percent of its business is making solar panels — which is a higher figure than rivals such as Nanosolar and Stion — but it sorely needs a buyer or some other form of investor to survive.

Meanwhile, First Solar has told Dow Jones that it is still thinking about what to do with the intellectual property from its CIGS program. Beck doesn’t think First Solar will sell it, because it doesn’t want to let competitors get hold of a technology that could end up undercutting First Solar’s own in the future. “If they give it away, it’d be suicide,” Beck said.