Differentiating thin film

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After Tokyo Electron announced its exit from the production of complete assembly lines, including its acquired Oerlikon technology, for micromorphous silicon, some industry observers once again have major questions about the future development of thin film modules. Also, news about declining global market share of thin film products offers a rather complicated picture.

Looking at the corporate and research landscape, many examples are apparent that development of thin film is progressing at a brisk pace and, parallel to the general growth in terms of quantity, a very strong differentiation in products and business strategies is occurring.

A quick (incomplete) overview on the status and reports of thin-film companies at a glance (no importance should be placed on the order of technologies and companies):

Amorphous / Micromorphous thin film

Inventux (Germany)

Allow me, as a Berliner, to begin with a Berlin-based company – Inventux Solar Technologies GmbH continues to be active in the market after an insolvency in 2012. In the course of the insolvency proceedings the company transformed from a stock corporation into a limited company. New investors and co-owners from South America came on board. Production was simultaneously modernized in order to produce more with less manpower, according to the company. In addition to solar modules, the company is continuing its focus on systems. In 2013, Inventux received a large order from Chile to deliver modules for the largest solar farm at that time. Further projects in Chile and other countries in Central and South America are being planned. Currently, the company is striving to develop Arab markets.

nexpower (Taiwan)

A thin-film company with a strong background is NexPower Corp. from Taiwan (as part of the UMC group of companies). NexPower has continuously increased the sales of its amorphous and micromorphous modules and in 2013 brought several new and very interesting products to market. These products on the one hand are semitransparent modules for Building Integrated PV (BIPV) and on the other hand modules specifically developed for the rapidly growing Offgrid Market. Micromorph thin film modules show strong performance particularly in warm regions, therefore Asian markets seems to be the most import sales region. For BIPV applications, Nexpower thin film modules enjoy advantages with their aesthetical appearance and installation experiences, Nexpower is focusing on European and Japanese markets, BIPV is well developed. On this particular item, Nexpower is looking for some European partner to develop European BIPV market.

Sharp (Japan/Italy)

After a serious crisis, Sharp Corporation and its solar division have recovered significantly. By all accounts, the success of the solar division in its domestic market in Japan has contributed greatly towards this. While Sharp revamps its crystalline production division and distribution, it continues to manufacture thin-film modules (in the EU at the 3Sun Fab in Italy). Sharp NA series thin-film modules are designed for applications with high power requirements. According to the company, the thin-film modules are based on the well-maintained, 40-year-old crystal silicon solar cell technology and are currently available as frameless glass-glass modules.

masdar pv (Germany)

The company, based in Thuringia, produces micromorphous solar modules on equipment supplied by Applied Materials that it further developed and customized. According to the company, part of the United Arab Emirates renewable energy group Masdar, it will continue to promote its product offensive in the area of building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV). In February 2014, the Ichtershäuser-based company received — by their own account, the only thin film manufacturer ever to do so — the certifications IEC 61646 and EN 61720 for its individual BIPV modules. This recent certification is valid for the entire product range of the Binaa series and allows outputs of individual modules or a "patchwork" of several modules of up to 720 Wp — rather exciting for planners.

Kaneka (Japan)

Things have been quiet around the solar division of thin film pioneer Kaneka. According to the company’s website, it’s still manufacturing micromorphous silicon modules. Kaneka Corporation manufactures also so called See-Through solar cells and Taiyo Kogyo Corporation manufactures See-Through solar products. Kaneka’s main product lines include chemicals, functional and expandable plastic products, foodstuffs, life science products and synthetic fibers as well as solar energy modules. Kaneka researches, develops and manufactures its own solar panels leveraging our advanced materials knowledge and our core competency as a chemical manufacturer goes back for over 60 years.

Cadmium telluride thin-film

First Solar (USA)

After making a number of negative headlines in 2012 with its announcement that it was closing its German production site, among other, along with the ongoing recall of low power modules, the company has once again become a stock market favorite. With a timely purchase and, later, the development and implementation of large projects (up to 550 MWp at one site), the company has likely changed its market strategy the most. So far, and evidently with success, First Solar says that it has installed over 8 GWp and, with manufacturing facilities in Malaysia and the U.S., continues to rank as one of the large producers in the industry — still by far the largest producer in the area of cadmium telluride (CdTe).

Calayxo (Germany)

Calayxo calls itself the "survivor of Solar Valley" because, unlike the former Q-Cells, a part of which remains based in the same region under new owners, Calayxo did not slip into insolvency. On the contrary, the co-founding investors obviously continue to believe in the development of the company. At the end of 2013, a new fully-automated production line for CdTe thin film solar modules was built with what the company says is the most competitive cost position worldwide with a production capacity of 60 MWp and an extension option to a total of 100 MWp, giving Calyxo GmbH an overall current capacity of 85 MWp. In November, Calayxo also announced the acquisition of an EPC contract in Namibia — with 300 kWp, a smaller system by today’s standards but also a significant step beyond the boundaries of pure module production.

CIS / CIGS thin film

Solar Frontier (Japan)

Solar Frontier, as a 100% subsidiary of Showa Shell, is one of the longest active research-based companies operating in the thin film markets, and backed by a strong shareholder base. In 2010-2011, the company succeeded in the "mass breakthrough" for the use of CIS technology in the field and has a very good reputation among many market players. The Japanese company is profitable, with a production capacity of more than 1 GWp and it’s currently expanding this capacity by a further 150 MWp in Japan for the domestic market by the start of next year. In Europe, Solar Frontier offers not only solar modules but also complete pre-assembled systems for commercial wholesale and to installers. Another focus is industrial self-generation with self-consumption in the EU. The announcement of further module developments and combinations of materials should also help to further expand its market position.

Avancis / Saint Gobain (Germany)

After Avancis (part of France’s Saint-Gobain Group) published a number of press releases announcing staff reductions and production curtailments in 2013, the company surprised many in February 2014 with a claim of a new record for CIS solar cells. On a 30 by 30 square centimeter Cd-free CIS solar module, the company achieved an international peak value of 16.6%, which was independently confirmed by NREL, U.S. Department of Energy’s research laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency. There is no information about any current plans for production. Saint Gobain no longer sells solar components in Germany, however, having given up its "Solarkauf" brand.

Hanergy (Solibro / miasolé / Global Solar) (China/Germany/USA)

Hanergy (and, among others, its German subsidiary Solibro) currently has the most ambitious goals in the field of thin film technology, as shown in the past one and a half years by the purchase of miasolé in the U.S. and Global Solar as well as extensive international expansion plans in China. Hanergy said it would use the financing to further develop its CIGS thin-film technology. On Jan. 30, 2014, the solar production line supplier Hanergy Solar Group entered into a contract to supply two production lines with a total production capacity of 600 MW to fellow Hanergy Group subsidiary Hebei Caofeidian Hanergy Photovoltaic. It will now be interesting to see if and/or when Hanergy successfully and profitably introduces the various technologies of its subsidiaries and announced new capacities into the international market.

Bosch CIGS (Germany)

Although Bosch caused a stir in Germany by selling the production of crystalline solar cells and modules to SolarWorld, Bosch CIGS continues to exist. There is currently no information on future plans.

Solarion (Germany) / Ascent (USA)

Germany’s Solarion manufactures highly flexible CIGS cells on polymer substrate. Ascent Solar was formed in 2005 to commercialize leading-edge CIGS photovoltaic technology on flexible, plastic substrate. Lightweight, flexible modules have a huge market potential, including on millions of commercial and industrial roofs which could otherwise only be used for PV with static and very complex structures, if at all.

Manz (Germany)

Equipment manufacturer Manz continues to provide complete turnkey CIGS production lines.

Singulus (Germany)

In February this year, Singulus and South African firm PTiP opened a joint 5 MW CIGS pilot CIGS manufacturing facility in Stellenbosch, near Cape Town.