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Just after announcing it had raised a $51 million round, thin-film solar cell manufacturer SoloPower announced it would build what will become a 300-megawatt manufacturing facility in Oregon, boosted by a $20 million loan from the Oregon Department of Energy.
The first phase will cover a 75-megawatt manufacturing line and create 170 jobs, the company said. The total investment into the Wilsonville, Ore. plant will total $340 million and eventually employ 500 people. SoloPower has also applied for a business energy tax credit worth $20 million from Oregon, and is looking to earn a loan guarantee from the DOE, the company said.
This marks one of many surges of activity seen in thin-film solar recently, which seemed to fall on hard times last summer when Applied Materials and Suntech both shut down their thin-film fabs. Thin-film solar panels are relatively cheap but have smaller efficiency rates compared to the predominant crystalline silicon technology. It became a hot concept a couple of years ago when silicon prices soared and entrepreneurs went looking for cost-saving alternatives. Silicon prices have since stabilized, throwing thin-film players into a murky area (though it’s worth noting that top global manufacturer First Solar produces cadmium telluride thin-film panels).
SoloPower makes thin-film panels using CIGS technology, named for its ingredients of copper, indium, gallium and de-selenide. While CIGS thin-film boasts higher efficiency rates than cadmium telluride thin-film, it can be costly to manufacture and there are uniformity issues with the film. SoloPower says its secret sauce is a low-cost, highly efficient electroplating manufacturing process.
Other thin-film makers have also come out with good news as of late. CIGS player MiaSolè announced it had achieved a bar-setting efficiency rate of 15.7 percent. Stion recently announced plans to invest $500 million in a thin-film manufacturing facility in Mississippi, the first phase of which will bring 100 megawatts of capacity online. AQT Solar said it will build a thin-film plant in South Carolina with a first phase of 30 to 40 megawatts, which will grow to 1 gigawatt by 2014’s end.
And Abound Solar raised $510 million — $400 million from a DOE loan guarantee — to build a facility in Colorado to manufacture its thin-film cadmium telluride panels. U.S. Department of Energy loan chief Jonathan Silver told VentureBeat he believes thin-film may be the U.S.’s answer to Chinese dominance in crystalline silicon panels. Thanks to generous subsidies from the government there and huge credit lines extended to Chinese solar panel makers, Chinese companies have been able to undercut others in price, to the detriment of U.S. solar startups.
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