Thin-film solar cell maker AQT Solar announced today it will open a second manufacturing plant in Richland County, South Carolina to help fill its current order backlog of 160 megawatts.

The new facility is slated to start production of CIGS cells by the start of 2012, and eventually grow to 1 gigawatt of capacity by the end of 2014. CIGS, named for the copper, indium, gallium, and selenium compound used in the cells, is expected to be a far cheaper material than traditional silicon solar cells.

The plant will be built in phases, starting outfitting the facility with 30 to 40 megawatts of capacity this year to expand current capacity in order to fill the backlog. Its existing plant in Sunnyvale, Calif. opened last year with 15 megawatts of capacity and is planned to grow to 30 to 40 megawatts of capacity by the end of this year.

The company opened its first plant last August even as thin-film solar technology appeared to fall on hard times, with companies like Applied Materials and Suntech shutting down their thin-film fabs. AQT says it can compete on cost that rivals other CIGS makers. The predominant technology on the market is crystalline silicon, which Chinese solar panel makers have dominated that field in terms of price competition, fueled by strong subsidy support by the government.

CIGS technology became a hot concept a couple of years ago when silicon prices soared and entrepreneurs went looking for cost-saving technologies. But 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). Thin-film technology yields smaller efficiencies compared to crystalline silicon (around 10 percent versus 20 percent); CIGS player MiaSole reported a bar-setting efficiency rate of 15.7 percent last month.

DOE loan chief Jonathan Silver pointed to U.S. thin-film solar companies like cadmium telluride thin-film outfit Abound Solar as example of how the U.S. will compete globally in solar. Last month, Abound got a $400 million DOE loan guarantee and raised $110 million in venture capital.  Thin-film players like Oerlikon, Abound, MiaSole, Nanosolar and Solyndra are still in the game (Solyndra closed its first factory in November following a pulled IPO in June).

Last year marked a blockbuster year for the global solar industry, which grew more than 100 percent to 16.3 gigawatts, according to research company SolarBuzz, which expects 20.4 gigawatts to be installed this year thanks to some cutbacks on favorable solar policies from the strong market of Germany. Bloomberg New Energy Finance solar analyst Nathaniel Bullard predicts this will be a down year by solar standards — meaning 25 percent growth compared to the 40 to 100 percent growth seen in previous years.

“It will mean compressed margins for most of the large manufacturers, but it could also mean an increase in demand in the U.S.,” Bullard said.