These are heady times for the thin-film solar industry. The sector’s dominant player, First Solar, has been on a tear of late, recently announcing it would build a second 10 megawatt power plant in Nevada, while Miasole, once thought to be ailing, has staged an impressive comeback, raking in an eye-popping $220 million. Nanosolar has developed a new ultra-fast solar cell printer, and even giants like IBM and Applied Materials have gotten in on the game.
In the face of such intense competition, how will HelioVolt, a well-funded outpost of CIGS manufacturing in Texas, fare? The company hopes a new hybrid, super fast CIGS process it has developed in collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), which combines its patented FASST process and NREL’s non-vacuum deposition technique, will help even the odds.
The Austin, Texas-based company licensed NREL’s non-vacuum deposition process, which allows for the quick application of liquid precursors onto a printing plate and substrate, to manufacture its solar cells with a 12.2 percent conversion efficiency at a fraction of the regular cost and in record time — under 6 minutes. Another advantage is that the substrate can be made from a variety of building materials, including glass, metals, plastics and roofing materials.
It remains to be seen how well this process will work, when it is applied to large-scale production. However, the technology recently won a vote approval when HelioVolt and NREL were given the R&D 100 Award, the technology and manufacturing industries’ equivalent of the Oscars, for developing this process. The cost and time savings will help, but HelioVolt will need to move quickly if it hopes to catch up with the likes of Nanosolar and First Solar, who are both well on their way to making cells in high volumes.
John Langdon, HelioVolt’s VP of marketing, told us the new process would give his firm the flexibility to produce on a much faster time scale while still creating more expensive high-performance cells, although the technology would not affect HelioVolt’s short-term plans (over the next 6 months) as it is still focused on getting its 20 megawatt Austin plant up and running. He wasn’t sure whether the process would help bring the cost of cells below the oft-cited threshold of $1 per watt threshold, but it will speed up manufacturing and enable high-volume production.
“Sometimes vacuum processes are most cost effective and sometimes atmospheric processes are. All of our forecasts and models show we can get to extremely low costs in high volume processing with vacuum methods –- we are developing the non-vacuum methods for flexibility and to explore the fact that FASST can work with either kind of precursors,” Langdon said.
Those key advantages could help HelioVolt weather an inevitable round of consolidation in the thin-film industry. While Langdon wasn’t ready to predict how many of the 31 or so funded CIGS startups would remain standing, the company thinks there’s plenty of room for more than one winner — though the broader solar industry will likely experience more segmentation as multiple viable technologies crop up.
The use of aesthetically-pleasing solar cells in architecture, for example, will become an increasingly important segment as prices decrease. Five years from now, he predicts, thin-film solar will account for roughly 50 percent of the industry, with polycrystalline silicon cells accounting for the other half.
While Langdon hopes to see the renewable energy tax investments extended, he said he would prefer to have one set of rules put in place to eliminate the uncertainty that has plagued the industry and made investment, particularly in the wind sector, less consistent. Even if the financial incentives decrease over time, the clarity and continuity one common set of rules would provide would encourage the sector’s long-term growth.
Calling it a “sleeping giant,” he said the US offered the most potential room for growth. While European countries may currently have the largest markets, Langdon suggested that rising energy prices, combined with some well-timed incentives, could help solar flourish. If Texas were to implement the set of incentives that have helped California become the country’s largest solar hub, it could even surpass the Golden State.