A word of caution for next-gen solar startups

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It’s been painfully apparent that many of the well-funded startups building next-gen solar tech have yet to ship solar panels in any large volumes and have missed their targets. Even the folks in the solar industry are starting to take each other to task publicly on this issue.

At the Photon Thin Film conference in San Francisco last week, well-known researcher Rommel Noufi, who heads the thin film research at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, challenged startup AQT Solar over promising and under delivering.

AQT Solar’s CEO, Michael Bartholomeusz, gave a pretty standard talk about the company’s shift from using the material combo CIGS (stands for copper-indium-gallium-selenide) to using CZTS (copper-zinc-tin-sulfide) for its solar cells. The Silicon Valley startup hasn’t met the goals it set a few years back with the manufacturing of CIGS solar cells, but it recently raised $18.7 million and is now charging ahead with its new CZTS technology instead. He promised to commercialize the CZTS technology in 2013.

And after Bartholomeusz spoke, Noufi stepped up to the microphone that was set up for a Q&A, and promptly put Bartholomeusz on the spot and cautioned about making empty promises: “The only advantage of CZTS is when indium and gallium disappear. We have to be careful about not giving another technology a bad name.”

In his own defense, Bartholomeusz, pointed out that the amount of money that has been pumped into developing CIGS technology has yet to make a significant dent in the market. He said: “I don’t think any commodity since the dawn of time hasn’t responded to supply and demand. So with indium and gallium there will have an issue.”

Failure of CIGS

The exchange ended there, but the feeling that the CIGS technology, which has attracted more than $1 billion in venture capital, hasn’t become a key player in the solar market lingered. Markus Beck, who until last December was heading the secretive CIGS development lab at First Solar, gave a talk at the conference that outlined why the CIGS community hasn’t achieved success. 

Some of the missteps involved experimenting with too many different ways to making CIGS panels and falling short on figuring out how to run production lines efficiently, Beck said. He noted the reliance on venture capital is partly to blame – VCs want to bet on cutting-edge technology because it could deliver a huge return if done right. But that in fact encouraged the development of fancy but expensive products that can’t compete, and Solyndra is a prime example, said Beck, who was the lead scientist at Solyndra before joining First Solar in 2008.

“If I say I have a new sexy process, then people give you money. We have diluted the money that is available to us,” he said.

Aside from AQT, other CIGS companies that still hope to become major players in the market include MiaSole, Nanosolar, HelioVolt, Stion, SoloPower, Soltecture, Global Solar, Solibro and Avancis. Several of them have brought in new CEOs in recent past. The biggest CIGS solar manufacturer is Solar Frontier, which brought online a 900 MW factory in its native Japan last year. The company last month announced a deal to supply up to 150MW of solar panels for a project in California. That project is now touted as a sign that demand for CIGS technology is there. Now if only other CIGS solar manufactures could work fast enough to meet demand.

Photo courtesy of Micky Aldridge via Flickr and Nanosolar

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