Photo credit: The Guardian
Thin film is fast becoming big business as building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) continues its prolific rise to power in the solar industry. By most accounts, thin film solar panels will take over the lion’s share of the solar market within two to five years depending on the source. There are three common ways to make thin film cells (amorphous silicon, CdTe, CIGS) and roughly 144 companies out there are trying, although the current economic slump could wreak havoc on many of those. Following are some of the top thin film manufacturers of today and a bit about what they’re up to.
Still by far the world’s leading thin film manufacturer (and the only thin film firm in Solar’s top 10), First Solar has been riding the cadmium-telluride (CdTe) train into glory. So far this year they’ve managed to break the $1 per watt price barrier for manufacturing their trademark solar panels. The future of CdTe technology, however, depends largely on the success (or not) of CIGS technology, which promises significantly higher conversion efficiency but a more complex makeup.
Applied Materials and Oerlikon
USA’s Applied Materials and Switzerland’s Oerlikon play key roles in the global thin film industry. A good deal of thin film production involves amorphous silicon, a material less efficient than its counterparts (i.e., CdTe, CIGS), but much cheaper and easier to produce because of existing manufacturing technology, technology provided in large part by these two companies. Amorphous silicon solar cells are expected to grow and even come to dominate the thin film market as it overtakes silicon wafer technology in the near future. Much of this growing capacity will come by way of Applied Materials and Oerlikon.
Nanosolar took the top spot for venture capital funding during last year’s otherwise weak fourth quarter, mostly due to their unique “printing” process that has greatly reduced the manufacturing cost of their CIGS solar cells, vowing to break the $1 watt barrier as well. Nanosolar’s thin film cells were one of Time Magazine’s Top 50 Inventions of 2008. The company has been producing its solar panels since 2007 with plans to ramp up considerably in 2009.
Energy Conversion Devices - Uni-Solar
Famous for its solar shingles, Uni-Solar is the wholly owned subsidiary of Energy Conversion Devices, Inc (ECD). United Solar Ovonic (Uni-Solar) is the world’s largest manufacturer of photovoltaic laminates—now the main focus of the one-time solar shingle manufacturer. ECD is the second largest thin film manufacturer behind First Solar, using amorphous silicon solar cells. Currently ECD is awaiting a rise in demand, recently announcing job cuts as it scales down production.
In 2008 Global Solar Energy finished yet another phase of its CIGS manufacturing plant in Tucson, Arizona. That put the company’s capacity up to 75 MW. Global Solar’s plans include 40 MW of actual capacity in 2009 and 140 MW by 2010, which would make them the world’s largest CIGS solar cell manufacturer.
Other key thin film companies to watch out for include Odersun, which took the top spot in The Guardian’s list of Top 100 CleanTech companies; Sharp Corp. is expected to make huge strides in the thin film world in the next few years; and Santa Clara, Calif. based, CIGS-making Miasole plans to break the 100 MW capacity threshold in 2009. Last year Best Solar CEO, Xiaofeng Peng, announced plans to build three 350MW thin film plants (reaching over 1 GW capacity) in China…now that’s jumping right into the mix.