Thin film opportunities as PV downturn draws to a close


The 5th annual Photovoltaics Thin Film Week opened today in Germany’s capital. At the industry forum, hosted by pv magazine publisher, Solarpraxis, discussions about module quality and reputation, along with niche opportunities and the potential for thin film technology to deliver "next generation" solar technology in the future were held. The forum attracted close to 100 attendees and was held in the Berlin Adlershof Technology Park.

Lightweight and flexible photovoltaic applications were highlighted by a number of speakers at the opening session as presenting a major market opportunity. "There are GWs of potential in the lightweight roofs segment," said IHS Solar’s Stefan de Haan. He quickly added, however, that attempts to produce modules for this market segment had not been successful in the past. "You will need investors with confidence and deep pockets to realize this," he said.

BIPV applications were also suggested as being an area in which thin film technology is well suited. Andreas Wade, representing the International Thin Film Industry Association, said that thin film photovoltaics can be a good fit for BIPV, because of the favorable athletics delivered by uniform semiconductor deposition and their comparably light weight. "We will see significant growth in BIPV," he predicted.

However on BIPV, IHS’ de Haan countered was more cautious. "BIPV is only 1 or 2% of the global market," said the analyst, adding "We are pessimistic as the construction industries are not used to dealing with BIPV, it’s not on their horizon."

Nano-scale improvements

On the technical front, Bernd Rech, from Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, stated the case that thin film technologies offer the greatest opportunity for R&D breakthroughs. He set out that heterojunction cell designs and 3D architectures as some of the ways efficiency gains can be delivered through developments on the nano scale – using PV.

"There is plenty to be done and almost all of these approaches rely on thin film technology," he said. He further touched on innovative research occurring in the field which could see hydrogen being created through photovoltaics.

Rech also made a strong argument that continuing innovation is vital. He argued that there is a risk in thinking that utilizing status-quo technology photovoltaics will be able to compete with other energy sources long into the future. "It is very important for the thin film industry that it remains dedicated and strong R&D programs across many groups," he said.

Ensuring the consistent and bankable quality of modules was an issue that stirred considerable discussion amongst attendees. The Thin Film Association’s Andreas Wade said that it was vital that the industry communicate effectively and that investors must be reassured as to the reliability of the technologies. "In a market where there is increased competition between traditional photovoltaics and thin film, there is room for miscommunication," he said.

Picking up on the theme of quality, SEMI’s Stefan Raithel added that standards cannot be left entirely up to industry associations. He said that one of the biggest weaknesses of thin film was a reluctance of the companies to talk to each other, "in a substantial, pre-competitive environment."

Thin Film Week continues until Thursday.