Nanosolar raises $20M to see if it can still compete

Nanosolar Germany

Solar thin film company Nanosolar is well known for having plowed through hundreds of millions of dollars in funding and over promising what it can deliver. But looks like Nanosolar still has investors that believe the company can make it big — Nanosolar just raised a $20 million round for what it hopes will be a new chapter of its history.

The funding announcement came about a month after Nanosolar promoted Eugenia Corrales from the head of engineering and operations to CEO, who in a statement described the funding as a shot at “the beginning of an exciting new period of growth for Nanosolar.”

Certainly, the Silicon Valley company seems to be finally making progress on scaling up production of its copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) solar panels. Its shipments went from zero to 10 MW during the year and a half when Corrales was whipping the company into a bona fide manufacturer while she was heading its engineering and operations.

Shipping 10 MW is a “personal best” for Nanosolar, but that shows Nanosolar is falling behind many of its fellow CIGS solar manufacturers. MiaSole said it shipped 60 MW in 2011. Avancis, Solibro, Global Solar Energy all shipped more than Nanosolar last year, according to GTM Research. The biggest CIGS company is Solar Frontier, which boasts a new 900 MW factory and is shipping at much greater volumes.

The median, total-area efficiency of Nanosolar’s panels is now at 11.5 percent, the company said. Total-area efficiency counts not just the cells in the panels that generate power but also the frame (sometimes companies talk about “aperture efficiency” to describe only the efficiency of the cell area of the panel, so that number is higher). Customers, such as project developers, care about total-area efficiencies because those numbers help to determine how many panels will fit in a given space and how much power the entire project will generate.

Missed milestones

Nanosolar has built a reputation for not delivering on its promises. Part of that came from it co-founder Martin Roscheisen, who said the company began commercial production of solar panels in Dec, 2007, which meant it should have begun to steadily increase its shipments, line up more customers and expand production. But he then divulged few details that would show progress, such as its technology, factory capacities, customers or projects, and he did so for long enough to draw suspicion, then ridicule from analysts and competitors.

It turned out the company wasn’t ready for prime time. Nanosolar announced in Sept. 2009 that it was only entering mass production then. After that the company became more circumspect about its work and opened its factory in San Jose, Calif. for tours to show it was making progress.

Nanosolar has announced some big contracts, technology improvements and completion of projects by its customers since Roscheisen’s successor, Geoff Tate, took over. But the company also was trying to right itself during a time when the solar market was beset by an oversupply of panels and falling prices for solar panels. Many of the much larger solar manufacturers have closed factories, laid off a big percent of their workforce, or gone bankrupt.

Can Nanosolar grow to become a major player? We don’t know. But it helps that it’s got faithful investors who believe it’s still possible. Two existing investors, Mohr Davidow Ventures and OnPoint Technologies, contributed to the $20 million round, along with the new comer Aeris Capital.

Mohr Davidow already was billed as a returning investor when it put money into the $75 million C round announced in 2006. Overall, the company has taken in over $400 million, including a $300 million round in 2008, since its start in 2002.

Photo courtesy of Nanosolar

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