Standardization, policy stability and competing with the 'big boys'

A variety of themes were covered today, of which the importance was often placed on how thin film companies can break out from behind crystalline solar. The fact is there is one company that is leading the thin film competition against conventional crystalline technology: First Solar. And most of the statistics that were pulled out which showed any significant jump in thin film’s precedence – a growth to 12.7 percent in 2010 – over the last years had to attribute it to First Solar’s impressive track record thus far with their cadmium-telluride (CdTe) modules.

What are the setbacks that are holding thin film back and where are the market segments that hold the mammoth possibilities for this technology to rise above crystalline? Wolfgang Herbst from centrotherm photovoltaics explains during his presentation that the major drawback of thin film is that there are a myriad of production processes available on the plate, from sputtering to vapor transfer deposition to PECVD (Plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition). He says that in the world of crystalline silicon, the processes have been more stream-lined and thereby standardized. This of course ropes in the economies of scale that has helped crystalline manufacturers. What Herbst is saying is that here is one key towards making thin film more competitive, via more standardization of production processes.

A look at the materials involved

The fact is, last year, a-Si (Amorphous silicon) and CdTe saw productions of more than one gigawatt each, while CIGS (copper-indium-gallium-(di)selenide) saw just above 400 megawatts. The question arises if, within the thin film realm itself, CIGS is indeed ready to come out and succeed. And what about the up and coming CZTS (copper-zinc-tin-selenide/sulfide)?

Thin film essentially uses lesser materials and has a faster payback time. It has simpler steps of production, but nevertheless, lower efficiencies. As Herbst adds, “You win some, then you lose some.” The point is, as low as costs can be claimed in the thin-film sector, the modules are still ‘paid’ in watts-peak.

Market-wise, thin film is the better choice, more or less outright, when it comes to Building Integrated Photovoltaics or BIPV. However, this is still a rather niche market for producers to lean on for constant support. The other fact remains that if a customer has lesser space, then he will choose crystalline modules simply because of the energy production and costs math. Thin film is after all competing against gigawatt heavyweights in the photovoltaic segments, unless we are taking about BIPV or commercial rooftops.

The market itself is playing a balancing act. It is at a tipping point, with policy decisions still being weighed by countries that were previously the Meccas of photovoltaics. EPIA’s (European Photovoltaic Industry Association) Pieterjan Vanbuggenhout believes that the political environment has to shift things around a little in order for more support to be leaned towards photovoltaics, and thereby thin film. He says that the right policies need to be in place in order for prices to fall and for the holy grail of grid parity to be attained. However, a sustainable, market-driven support scheme needs to be set in place. “Well-shaped FITs that are valid for fixed periods without any retroactive changes is one of the best options,” he asserts. IRRs (Internal Rate of Return) need to be reasonable – too high and they can lead to certain booms, which can then also crash. A classic example being Spain.

Market control is another necessity that was brought up. Vanbuggenhout talks about the importance of an easy and transparent administrative process: a ‘one-stop-shop’ concept. The lead times between the end of the installations, for example, and the time of the system connection to the grid need to be non-complicated and fast. To add to all that, he says that grid connection should only be granted to reliable developers as well.

The question is then, in this whole atmosphere of uncertainty, and yoyo-like post-Fukushima politics, is thin film photovoltaics a big boy’s game, as Götz Fischbeck from BHF-Bank asks? The point is, as he says, most of the companies in this portion of photovoltaics have huge corporations backing them. Solar Frontier with a one-gigawatt peak capacity is backed by Showa Shell, Prime Star Solar with 430 megawatts-peak, by General Electric and Solyndra and Abound Solar have DOE grants behind them.

This means that these companies can tolerate losses for the first couple of years and get by as Fischbeck says. First Solar is the exception here, with its own established position in the difficult market. To sum it up, what Fischbeck states at the beginning can be taken as a valid quote. "There are more challenges than opportunities in the sector." Which is rather true at times. The point is to put the heads together and find the solutions to trudge forward.