Despite wave of sales and bankruptcies, ‘thin-film’ solar dream still alive

Five years ago, a promising solar technology was all the rage in Silicon Valley. Several startups were experimenting with a compound known as CIGS — shorthand for copper indium gallium selenide — that advocates said represented a great leap for the industry. Known as “thin-film” because of the thin and flexible panels, the promise of CIGS was that it would be less expensive to manufacture than traditional silicon-based solar panels but still highly efficient at turning the sun into electricity.

Startups like MiaSolé, Nanosolar, SoloPower, Solyndra and others attracted massive amounts of funding from some of the valley’s top venture capital firms. But the timing was terrible. Chinese manufacturers began aggressively pricing silicon-based panels and driving costs down just as the CIGS companies were trying to get their manufacturing lines up and running. Then the global recession hit, leaving Silicon Valley littered with CIGS companies that filed for bankruptcy, were sold at fire-sale prices or struggled on.

But while Silicon Valley’s CIGS dream largely imploded, work on the technology continues at the nation’s top energy labs and universities, and some say CIGS still holds enormous potential. Lux Research estimates that the market for solar installations based on CIGS thin-film panels will reach $2 billion in 2015, as manufacturers improve efficiencies.

“The book isn’t entirely closed on CIGS,” said Shayle Kann, vice president for research at Greentech Media. “CIGS was a new technology with complex manufacturing processes that require scale and maturation to be competitive. A lot of companies were trying to scale but it was the worst possible timing: The price of silicon panels was falling through the floor. Solar Frontier is the only CIGS company that is operating at large scale.”

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TSMC Solar’s commercial-sized CIGS modules raise efficiency record for monolithic thin-film PVs to 15.7%

TSMC Solar Ltd, which was founded in May 2009 as a subsidiary of the world’s biggest silicon wafer foundry Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co Inc (TSMC), says TUV SUD has confirmed that its latest commercial-sized (1.09m2) CIGS (copper indium gallium diselenide) champion module has achieved 15.7% module total area efficiency.

The new champion module improves on TSMC Solar’s previous 15.1% world record for monolithic thin-film module efficiency, set in January. The module was produced using the current manufacturing equipment and materials at the firm’s manufacturing facility in Taichung, Taiwan.

TSMCPicture: TSMC Solar’s S-Fab production line.

“Our new champion module not only pushed our efficiency record up by 0.6% points in just 4 months, but also achieved a record temperature coefficient of -0.26%/degree Celsius, showing our continued ability to improve our process technology,” says TSMC Solar’s president Ying-Chen Chao.

TSMC Solar has also announced the introduction of its new TS-CIGS Series Model C1 module, with nameplate power spanning 140-155W. The UL- and TUV SUD-certified module has an improved temperature coefficient of -0.31%/degree Celsius and has passed both the Blowing Sand Test based on IEC 60068-2-68 and the Salt Mist Ed.2 test.

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