How thin-film can seize the opportunity to stage a comeback

Amid growing signs that the free-falling price of crystalline-silicon (c-Si) modules may finally be levelling off, experts say that thin-film producers have a small window of opportunity to reassert themselves in the marketplace.

Thin-film’s share of the global PV market has fallen from nearly 20% in 2009, when polysilicon prices were sky high, to less than 10% today, and the share is “still going down”, according to Finlay Colville, vice-president of market researcher Solarbuzz.

US-based First Solar and Japan’s Solar Frontier, which use cadmium-telluride and copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) technologies, respectively, dominate the thin-film sector. But in both cases, a large share of their production is being fed into their own project-development activities.

First Solar is building a raft of mega-projects using its own modules, such as the Agua Caliente facility in Arizona, while Solar Frontier recently founded a joint venture with Belectric, the world’s largest solar engineering, procurement and construction contractor.

“It’s actually pretty difficult to find thin-film manufacturers making a business case selling their own modules on the open market at the moment,” Colville says.

But John West, managing director of VLSI Research, says recent signs that c-Si prices may be bottoming out have handed thin-film players a brief opportunity to stage a comeback.

West argues that the massive glut of c-Si modules that has driven down prices has distorted the marketplace, leaving thin-film looking less competitive than it really is. Makers of c-Si components lost as much as $5bn on sales of $30bn in 2011, West claims, meaning that the price of c-Si modules has been about 15% below anything approaching a sustainable level.

“These companies are out of money and they simply can’t afford to continue subsidising the industry. So inevitably, [c-Si] prices will either stabilise or come up,” says West.

“Either way, that gives thin-film manufacturers a chance to catch up. They have maybe a window of about a year, a year and a half, to get their efficiencies up and their costs down.”

If they are able to do so, the competitive landscape of the PV industry may look significantly different when it returns to profitability around 2014.

Dieter Manz, chief executive of German PV toolmaker Manz, agrees. Manz defends his company’s decision earlier this year to acquire CIGS production technology from Würth Solar, saying: “We are going to see a recovery in thin-film over the next two or three years. We’re now able to deliver [conversion efficiency] levels comparable with multicrystalline technology, and at a much lower cost.”

He adds that with the exception of Solar Frontier, CIGS modules have not been produced at anything like the scale the c-Si sector has reached, leaving the technology with huge scope for continued cost-reduction.