A Chinese solar company you should know: Hanergy

Chinese solar company Hanergy has been making big news lately, first with the intended purchase of a German solar company and then with a 3-year deal to make and install solar panels on Ikea’s stores in China. But, wait, who is Hanergy?

Hanergy is a large renewable energy producer in China and runs 6 GW of hydropower plants and employs 5,000 people worldwide. It also claims to have factories that can produce 2 GW of solar panels per year. It built two factories with 300 MW of capacity each in 2011.

Hanergy made its move into the U.S. market when it set up an office south of San Francisco in 2010.  The company also has built a wind energy generation business within China.

What is intriguing about the privately held Hanergy, aside from its buildup of a massive production capability at a time when the world market is plagued by a glut of solar panels, is its pursuit of thin film solar technology. The company makes amorphous-silicon based thin film panels, a type of technology that fell out of favor in the U.S. and Europe when several venture-backed startups working on it went out of business or still struggle to make it work.

Amorphous-silicon thin film technology promises to deliver low-cost solar panels with an ultra thin layer of cells. But the costs of buying equipment and starting production can be quite high, and reducing those costs during mass production often takes longer than expected (this issue isn’t unique to amorphous-silicon thin films but applies to new solar technologies in general). Amorphous-silicon solar thin films also tend to be less efficient at converting sunlight into electricity than technologies that use other semiconductors, such as silicon or copper-indium-gallium-selenide.

Manufacturers can sell lower-efficiency panels as long as they price them lower than the competing but higher-efficient panels. But accomplishing that has proven difficult when, in addition to dealing with high start-up production costs, you have to compete with technologies that are producing cheaper and cheaper solar panels as well.

Amorphous-silicon technology is still alive and may even be doing well in Asia, where there remains a number of manufacturers. DuPont, which has an amorphous silicon thin film factory in China, announced Wednesday that it will sell 22.75 MW of the thin films for two projects in Thailand.

In a write-up dated mid-2010, Hanergy said it was building a factory to make amorphous silicon solar panels (with an added microcrystalline layer) that could covert 9.5 percent of the sunlight that falls on them into electricity. Other thin film technologies had efficiencies a few percentage points higher than that back then, and panels made with much thicker silicon cells had efficiencies mostly in the mid-teens.

Hanergy remains a big believer in thin film technology and last week announced it was going to buy Solibro, a German company that makes solar panels using copper-indium-gallium-selenide cells. Solibro’s owner, Q-Cells, filed for bankruptcy a few months back.

Hanergy doesn’t just want to produce solar panels, it also wants to build solar power projects. That is one of its goals for the U.S. market, and it could benefit from the current trade case against imported Chinese silicon solar cells. However, the project development and construction business is a completely different playground that doesn’t easily accommodate new comers, even those armed with massive factories.