New technology uses cheaper materials instead of expensive silicon crystals. These new solar cells are 1/1oth of the cost of traditional silicon cell based solar panels.
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Thin Film manufacturing companies
Of these companies First Solar is the clear leader with 210 megawatts worth of manufacturing capacity and will more than double that figure with new factories in the next few years.
Here are some reasons why First Solar is the dominant player in this space:
- Experience. First Solar was founded in 1999, but the history of the company goes back decades, according to Dan Myers of Crosslink Capital. Founder Harold McMaster made his first fortune in the late 1940s with Permaglass and later went onto Glasstech. McMaster was one of the world’s experts on tempered glass. In the 80s, McMaster got interested in solar technology and experimented with different ways to put photovoltaic materials on glass. He worked first with silicon and then cadmium-telluride with a company called Solar Cells. Solar Cells had a rough number of years financially but was finally reincarnated as First Solar in 1999.
- Patient Investors. John Walton, of the Walton family fortune, was an early investor and stuck by the company through the very difficult early years. Interestingly, Myers noted that none of the big solar success stories have been emerged from the usual Silicon Valley path of being fostered along and funded by VCs, which usually want a return after five years or so. Instead, these companies have taken years to incubate.
- The secret manufacturing sauce. The company has developed a process with its own machinery that can churn out high volumes of cells. What’s more, the company can replicate those factories to rapidly expand capacity. In a sense, the entire thin film solar industry is a competition around who can build a better machine. The CIGS solar cell companies will all have similar products. The difference between them lay in how they produce those cells: Miasole is sputtering the active materials onto substrates, while Nanosolar is printing them. Many companies are also making their own machinery. (A lot of the success of SunPower, which makes crystalline silicon solar cells, is also based around an efficient copy exactly methodology.) With that in mind, it’s probably a better analogy to say First Solar is trying to be the Intel of solar, rather than the Google.
- Secrecy. The company doesn’t let you see those fancy machines either, says Myers. He visited the company and was barred, like other visitors, from getting an up close look at the production line.
- Poison. Cadmium can be toxic, which sort of scares some people away. The company has tinkered with its process to cut down on workplace toxins and has recycling programs with manufacturers.
Thin-film Photovoltaic (PV) Laminates Installation Video
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