Thin-film solar is attractive for a number of reasons; from the fact that it is more environmentally friendly to produce, to the low cost of manufacturing these much lighter weight and less bulky cousins of the traditional solar panel. But only the fittest are surviving in this niche market of highly sophisticated technology and constant innovation.
Thin-film solar panels are manufactured using solution-based, low-temperature, roll-to-roll procedures that apply conventional printing techniques to flexible materials that can easily be incorporated into buildings and other structures. They are manufactured using copper, indium, gallium and selenium, rather than from silicon, cadmium and tellurium, which is used in conventional solar panel production.
The latest industry victim is Konarka, which filed for bankruptcy after having raised more than $150 million in funding since 2001, plus at least $10 million in loans over the past decade, including a $1.5 million state loan backed by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Late last week, the company said it had failed to obtain additional financing and had no alternative to a full liquidation and asset sale to pay off creditors.
Aside from Konarka, at least 13 thin-film solar panel manufacturers in the US have filed for bankruptcy this year.
In the meantime, thin-film solar panel manufacturing is being eyed by the Chinese, who appreciate the low-cost production and have plenty of space to install these larger, though less bulky panels.
Earlier this year, China’s LDK solar group announced it planned to acquire German panel maker Sunways, which produces thin-film panels. In June, China’s privately owned Hanergy likewise announced plans to acquire another European thin-film solar panel producer, Solibro, a subsidiary of Q-Cells, which filed for insolvency in April.
But this is not the death knell for thin-film panels by any means, it’s just a test which only the innovatively fittest will survive. While Konarka and others have failed, California solar panel maker Nanosolar Inc. announced on 1 June that it had managed to raise $70 million in venture capital to commercialize its innovative solar panels.
Nanosolar appears to have the edge on innovation necessary to attract continued investment. According to NASDAQ, Nanosolar’s new venture capital is coming from Mohr Davidow Ventures, OnPoint Technologies Inc., Ohana Holdings LLC and European private-equity investors “who refer to themselves as international family offices because they include families who use their wealth to invest in companies”.
So, while Konarka files for bankruptcy, Nanosolar is optimistic despite falling prices and global oversupply. Nanosolar has its sights set on expanding its manufacturing operations to 115 megawatts of capacity, along with some hearty research and development to improve its technology.
Incidentally, the failure of Konarka is not likely to be altogether grieved by President Obama, who had come under fierce attack over the failure of the administration-backed Solyndra solar giant in 2011. It will be lost on few that Konarka was backed very explicitly by Romney, who has led the attacks on the Obama renewable energy campaign.
By. Charles Kennedy