Thin film solar market to grow 1,500 percent by 2017

From its 2010 levels of $2.9 billion, this signifies a significant growth rate for the technology and will be driven primarily by developments in cadmium-telluride (CdTe) and copper indium gallium (di)selenide (CIGS), as well as new opportunities in the auto and building industries, according to a new report – "Thin Film Solar Technology Market Shares, Strategies, and Forecasts, Worldwide, 2011 to 2017" – by U.S. company, Wintergreen Research.

It states that the overall solar market will reach $1 trillion sometime in the middle of 2021, with its chief author, Susan Eustis telling pv magazine that she expects global solar to provide up to 50 percent of global energy demand very rapidly.

"Thin film solar looks like a very high growth market," she said. "The numbers are going to rise really quickly from its current one percent of global energy supply."

During the compiling of the report, Eustis was particularly surprised by the success of First Solar and its lack of competitors, saying that the company’s ability to scale projects, utilize its large resources, and its strong leadership had put it in its position of dominance.

"First Solar are doing very well," she said. "They are clearly the leader, but more competition is emerging."

The report spends a lot of time looking at the situation for CdTe and analyzing whether other players will be able to capture a share of the marketplace, following in the wake of First Solar.

Alternatives to the manufacturing strategy used by First Solar are looked at, as are opportunities in the space, such as with suppliers of CdTe absorber layer materials and suppliers of electrode materials.

Furthermore, the report analyzes the major players in the overall thin film market, as well as how each country is embracing, or not, thin film. Analysis of the companies HelioVolt, Masdar and Daystar, among others,is carried out leading ultimately to "First Solar having more competition".

It was also found that less reliance on silicon due to thin film having about one percent of the thickness of a normal silicon layer is a major factor in the technology’s advancement.

The thin film silicon solar cell production process is also far shorter than that for crystalline silicon solar cells and is hoped to "greatly expand the potential of solar energy."

Due its inherent flexibility, said the report, thin film solar seems increasingly well suited to use in building integrated photovoltaics, which is one of the fastest growing segments in the marketplace.

Eustis also suggests that when thin film solar systems are looked at over the 25-year useful life of the systems, they provide very attractive payback. She adds that the area holds "mountains of opportunity" for the solar industry.

The last report provided by the company into thin film photovoltaics was last year and since then they say that the market has matured greatly and companies have proven that some of these technologies have real marketplace value, citing the example of First Solar and its use of CadTel products.

Solar for vehicles a huge opportunity

Eustis was particularly praising of the work that thin film solar could do in helping the auto industry.

She said that it was a "massive" opportunity for solar to make inroads as electric cars become more prominent. She also saw it as a potential boom for a job market that is currently in need of bolstering.

"One thing that really makes this type of solar viable is electric vehicles," she said. "Solar can create jobs as it can be a major factor in creating energy for these electric cars."

She found this to be the most noteworthy discovery in her research in compiling the report.

Problems moving forward

Despite the mostly positive account, the report also points out some issues that may affect the growth rate over the coming years.

The falling away of issues surrounding the silicon shortage means that one of the most persuasive arguments for using a thin film technology rather than conventional crystalline silicon photovoltaics has gone away with it.

There is a section looking exclusively at thin film silicon, which it says is "still in the game" following recent developments after the end of the shortage.