Is CIGS ready for a comeback?

Having suffered a number of set backs in recent history, such as the end of the silicon shortage, NanoMarkets’ latest report, "CIGS Photovoltaic Market Opportunities 2011" has said the copper indium gallium (di)selenide (CIGS) market seems to be "getting a second look" this year.

Its high efficiencies, coupled with the potential to tap into a number of different markets, makes it an attractive thin film PV (TFPV) product. However, it says there are issues, which need to be overcome before the technology can really take off.

The report explains that while CIGS has been the "object of many grand visions of a ‘PV everywhere’ future", it is not an easy material to work with on a large scale. "CIGS firms have not yet achieved the volumes or profitability that they have sought," states the report. "What has been missing? The answer seems to be manufacturing processes that can scale up to high volumes.

"Firm after firm has demonstrated products that are very functional, yet failed to deliver them in volume. As a result, we believe that scaling manufacturing deserves a prominent place in any business case involving CIGS. Only with this component does a business case really become convincing enough to show that it can meet the market."

Although there are hurdles to overcome, the market is projected to ramp up both in terms of capacity and sales revenues. For example, NanoMarkets believes that 440 megawatts (MW) of CIGS PV will be produced this year, while 2012 is projected to hit 827.2 MW. Looking forward, the company estimates that 3,2006.5 MW and 8,119.9 MW will be produced in 2015 and 2018 respectively.

In terms of revenues, the market is expected to reap USD$613.4 million this year and USD$1,037.8 million in 2012. In 2015, this number is projected to hit USD$2,932.7 million, while 2018 should see revenues of USD$5,413.9 million.

In its report, the company explains: "(…) NanoMarkets is doing its best not to be too optimistic about the prospects. After all, this is a technology that has all but drowned in optimism before and that should be a warning sign. As a result, we have shown fairly modest evolution towards new goals for CIGS."

Market opportunities

NanoMarkets says there are three areas where it makes sense for CIGS PV to play a role: (i) the conventional panel market; (ii) building-integrated PV (BIPV); and (iii) the mobile power market.

The majority of CIGS companies are, according to NanoMarkets, going to focus on the conventional panel market, which is "rapidly" becoming dominated by commodity products. As such, it says the key factors are price and efficiency. "We believe that if CIGS manufacturers can get their pricing right and produce stable products, it will be able to compete effectively against non-CIGS offerings quite successfully," says the NanoMarket report.

In terms of BIPV, the company says CIGS is "well suited", while commoditization is not an influencing factor. It adds that CIGS has a competitive advantage over crystalline silicon (c-Si) due to its flexibility. The report explains: "Essentially, this means that CIGS comes to the BIPV space with fewer worries about price and dominance from another absorber material, than in the conventional space. Indeed, it is possible that for flexible BIPV, CIGS could itself become dominant."

While it is believed that the biggest BIPV share for CIGS will come from the flexible market, it is also well suited for rigid tiles and BIPV glass. However, the one drawback is CIGS sensitivity to moisture, says NanoMarkets. "To achieve the 20 – 30 year lifetimes generally required of BIPV products, advanced encapsulation solutions are needed," states the report.

Finally, while the mobile power market is mainly associated with organic PV and dye sensitized cells, CIGS "has the luxury of treating portable electronics as an add-on market. This is good (for CIGS), because the portable electronics market for PV has a distinctly niche-like status consisting mainly of solar battery chargers of various kinds and form factors."

Growth

Overall, NanoMarkets says there are around 50 companies operating in the CIGS market today, in comparison to the approximately 20 companies in 2009. It goes on to say that with the “considerable” growth, it believes the market could see a "major" shakeout in the future.

"The model to bear in mind here," says report, "is the a-Si, which has just finished with its shakeout. While CIGS and a-Si are at different ends of the spectrum when it comes to performance measures, one takeaway from the a-Si shakeout that we think that CIGS makers should take to heart was the small guys failed. We expect something similar to occur with CIGS firms; there are inherent economies of scale in all PV, as events in all sectors of the PV industry have shown at different times. CIGS is unlikely to be the exception to the rule."

China

While CIGS production has been focused in the U.S., NanoMarkets reports that a lot of the new entrants are Asian. This trend is tied up in the fact that a lot of PV manufacturing has been moving to China over the past few years. However, the company additionally believes that there is "a special fit" between CIGS manufacturing and the Asian nation. It explains: "In its current state, CIGS can benefit from China’s low cost of labor, although no more so than other PV technologies. However, down the road, CIGS seems to be a PV technology that more than the others has the potential to create high-value added products. This fits well with the likely economic development route for China, which will inevitably have to move – as Japan and Korea did before them – to higher value products as its labor force becomes richer. Therefore, CIGS seems ideally suited to China’s economic environment, both now and in the near-term future."

It adds that another reason why China is an attractive option for CIGS manufacturing is because most of the world’s indium supply is also sourced from there. "(…) at the current time," says the report, "the Chinese Government has been restricting exports of this metal. While non-Chinese suppliers can eventually adjust to meet any shortfall, this will not happen overnight and in the meantime, Chinese CIGS suppliers or CIGS firms in nations favored by the Chinese will benefit."