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Struggles continue for thin film solar startups, Nanosolar latest with layoffs

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Super cheap solar panels being churned out of China continue to put pressure on the startups looking to build the next generation of thin-film solar cells. According to two reports (Dana Hull, and Greentech Media) thin-film solar startup Nanosolar has done a round of layoffs, which could be as substantial as 75 percent of its staff.

Oh how times have changed — one of the first stories I did for GigaOM’s cleantech channel was “10 questions for Nanosolar CEO Martin Roschiesen” in the summer of 2007. Back then Roschiesen told me the company was starting pilot production that year and had raised enough money to make it profitable. In 2008, the company was valued at $2 billion.

Fast forward to 2012, and Nanosolar raised $70 million from investors, reportedly at a pre-money valuation of $50 million. Aeris Capital, a fund that manages finances for SAP founder Klaus Tschira, partly funded that round as a way to pick up solar assets on the cheap. Other investors in that round included OnPoint Technologies, Mohr Davidow Ventures, Ohana Holdings, and Family Offices. Nanosolar has taken in at least $450 million since its start in 2002.

Nanosolar Material After Coating

Nanosolar makes thin solar panels out of a material called copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS). At one time in Silicon Valley, CIGS was the great white hope — Solyndra, Heliovolt, Miasole, and others raised hundreds of millions of dollars to build the next-generation of solar tech. But the price of silicon-based solar dropped dramatically and made the economics of selling more expensive CIGS panels much more difficult. Some of these companies have gone bankrupt, done major layoffs, retrenched or been sold off in fire sales.

Solar Frontier, part of Japan’s Showa Shell, is one of the only companies to reach scale with its CIGS solar panels. The company completed a 900 MW factory in late 2010 and brought all of its production lines into commercial production mode by the summer of 2011.

Nanosolar could end up being acquired for cheap from international investors. South Korean and Chinese power conglomerates have particuarly shown interest in investing in and buying discounted U.S. clean power assets. Or there’s always the Solyndra route — a very public, abrupt bankruptcy.

8 Responses to “Struggles continue for thin film solar startups, Nanosolar latest with layoffs”

  1. Joe Spoor

    I know zero about solar power or technology. But I do understand that if you don’t have a trade secret formula (which seems to be the case with these CIGS and silicone panels), then other factors will determine success: marketing, labor costs, relationships, paybacks. It’s just simple business. US companies can’t compete (for right or wrong) because our labor force is more expensive.

  2. procoolheat

    US companies create the technology.

    The Asians buy some and reverse engineer it.

    US companies are either sold or go bankrupt.

    Game over.

    I really thought Nano Solar had a real shot at becoming a great success story. I hope they can make a come back.

  3. michael kanellos

    Here is what they missed. Nanosolar, Miasole and the rest of the CIGS people really invented good pieces of capital equipment. They came up with a process. But instead of doing that and trying to sell to Applied Materials, they wanted to become product manufacturers. And they never had the girth to hang with China Inc. or South Korea Inc.

    Innovalight was one of the few companies to realize that they had to take a step back from the customer. Twin Creeks did too, but the timing wasn’t as good.

    • CIGS was essentially always based on a fundamental misapprehension of scale economics and the learning curve. It’s not at all shocking that it has largely (not entirely, but largely) been a commercial failure.

  4. What most solar startups don’t understand is that you can’t win in this industry with normal priced goods. You have to find a way to make your goods cheaper and in bulk, stop being “Mr. high quality nut”. Otherwise China and other cheap countries in that category will pass over you like a seam roller and send you packing.

    • Charles Tilford

      1. All manufacturers’ panels have to be guaranteed to work for 25 years. No matter how cheaply you make and sell them, you MUST be a “high quality nut”.

      2. Nanosolar fully understands the goal of “cheaper and in bulk”. It “just” hasn’t been able to get there yet, despite the money and the many years of hard, dedicated work of top-quality men and women. Plans were made and the factory built when a market price of $.40/watt was inconceivable.

      I just wish people like you would give some respect to the commitment and professionalism of the folks who have dedicated their careers to making economically viable renewable energy a reality.

      And…it’s “steam roller”, for rolling roads, you meant, not “seam roller”, a hand-tool for rolling seams

      • 1. I don’t know of a single CIGS product that’s ever been guaranteed for 25 years. You?
        2. $0.40/watt is still inconceivable. Prices have come down, but Brother Roscheisen was going to sell to us at well under $1/watt, which if he had done he would not be able to produce enough to keep up with demand, even today. What happened?
        3. These people who promise the moon and bow out once their personal bank accounts are full will never have my respect. Respect is something you earn.