Research: Crystalline silicon technology has the solar edge

However, it has been forecast that copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) is positioned to overtake crystalline silicon in profitability by 2013, as the process stability is improved.

The report, Module Cost Structure Breakdown: Can Thin Film Survive the Crystalline Silicon Onslaught? – issued by Lux Research – has found that crystalline silicon solar modules are "threatening to steal" market share from thin film solar technologies like thin film silicon (TF-Si), cadmium telluride (CdTe), and copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS), due to its "clear edge" in efficiency and profit margins.

The report says that many of the thin film technologies are "are under the gun" to improve margins or "face extinction".

"Crystalline silicon is dominant by volume and remains the cost/price benchmark for solar modules. Cadmium telluride is limited in efficiencies, but is the absolute leader in cost. We project these two technologies will continue to be highly profitable," explained Ted Sullivan, a senior analyst for Lux Research, and the report’s lead author.

"The profitability of thin film silicon is much dicier, but copper indium gallium diselenide is positioned to outplace crystalline silicon in profitability by 2013, as leading developers improve process stability."

In order to investigate the technologies, Lux says it compared incumbent multicrystalline silicon (mc-Si) technology (reportedly representing roughly 80 percent of the crystalline silicon market) on a $/W basis against three challengers: TF-Si, CdTe and CIGS.

The report’s findings reveal that multicrystalline silicon remains highly profitable as cost-of-goods-sold (COGS) decline. It says that the dominant technology will continue to be profitable throughout the value chain as vertically integrated players drive cost down from USD$1.45/W in 2009 to $0.93/W in 2015, assuming poly pricing at $70/kg. "Efficiency will be a key driver of cost reduction, rising from 14.0 percent in 2009 to 16.1 percent in 2015," it said in a statement.

Furthermore, the report said that Oerlikon will give thin film silicon "new legs". It says that improvements enabled by Oerlikon’s new ThinFab line will increase thin film silicon efficiencies from 9.0 percent to above 11.0 percent. "Significant improvements in output will cut depreciated capex per watt," continued the statement, "and help to reduce TF-Si costs from $1.32/W in 2009 to $0.80/W in 2015."

In terms of CdTe, it found that the technology remains the long term leader in terms of COGS. Led by First Solar, CdTe has a significantly lower cost structure than mc-Si, explained the report, and its cost reductions will "march onward", keeping it the most profitable solar technology, as COGS falls from $0.80/W in 2009 to $0.54/W in 2015.

Moreover, the report states that costs for select CIGS technologies will "dramatically" decrease. CIGS sputtered on glass – which is what Lux Research says is its benchmark, due to its "critical mass" of developers – will see COGS decrease from $1.69/W to $0.76/W as efficiency improves from 10.0 percent to 14.2 percent, and factory nameplate capacity and yields grow, allowing the top developers to earn gross margins over 30 percent.