Tumult in CIGS Market Layer: Production Dips and Research Goals

Tumult in CIGS Market Layer: Production Dips and Research Goals

By Tyler Ogden, Lux Research

Two opposing announcements hit the wire regarding copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) manufacturing updates: the consumer-oriented Ascent Solar announced the cancellation of plans for the construction of a 25 MW facility while commercial and utility focused Stion placed an equipment order with Avaco for a doubling of their current production capacity of 60 MW to 120 MW. Ascent Solar was to build-up from the 25 MW factory to 100 MW in China, but the company ascribed the cancellation to a lack of local talent. Stion says its purchase of thermal processing furnaces and transparent conducting oxide deposition tools will eliminate bottlenecks in its two-step sputtering line.

These updates ride behind Solar Frontier’s recent achievement of shipping a cumulative 3 GW of modules. Hulk Energy Technologies announced another landmark in CIGS technologies: a 324 W module with 14 percent efficiency, currently the highest power output for a commercial CIGS panel. Activity is also heating up in the research arena, where ZSW – the current efficiency record-holder of a CIGS cell – is partnering with 11 research institutes and companies (EMPA [Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology], IMEC, the HZB, the INL [International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory], Flisom, Manz AG, and the universities Luxembourg, Rouen, Parma, and Aalto) to develop a 25 percent efficient cell at competitive costs. Lying in the shadow of the CIGS market, Hanergy Thin Films had plans to expand production capacity on the technology from its acquisitions of MiaSole and Solibro. Hanergy made an advanced payment on equipment purchases from Singulus Technologies, suggesting the plans may progress.

Given their infamous financial situation, it is unlikely Hanergy will have any near-term impact in growing or shaping the landscape of the CIGS market. The shake-up in manufacturing capacity across different companies is reflective of the varying forces on CIGS applications: thin-films for portable electronics are largely niche products with limited appeal outside military applications. Ascent Solar may redraft its manufacturing plans to support its partnership with Vanguard Space Technologies and Silent Falcon UAS Technologies for space and defense applications. Conversely, Stion’s increase in manufacturing capacity is a response to the U.S.’s tariffs on cheap, low efficiency Chinese modules. The trade war has opened up a space where CIGS modules have a competitive advantage in having similar costs and efficiencies to Chinese cells, but due to their higher energy production (kWh/W) CIGS panels offer more value. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that CIGS technology will take away market share from crystalline-silicon modules in the short-term.

Long-term initiatives like ZSW’s Sparc25 collaboration are pursuing efficiencies that would surpass targeted research goals for high-efficiency x-Si modules. SolarWorld’s HELENE research project targets 22.5 percent efficiency by 2017 for p-type passivated-emitter, rear contact (PERC) cells. SolarWorld hit 21.7 percent in July. Despite the significant difference in the efficiency targets between the two research initiatives, it is far more likely that HELENE will be able to develop and roll-out their research to production scale. Achievements from Sparc25 will come over a longer time-span and have more difficulty in reaching commercial modules due to the smaller size of the CIGS market. Furthermore, Sparc25 is likely focused on hitting efficiency records using a coevaporation process, whereas the only CIGS company to reach scale, SolarFrontier, uses a sputtering process. This difference leaves space for new companies to enter into the CIGS market if they are able to develop competitive advantage from high efficiency production technologies. In the short-term, there is unlikely to be any dent in x-Si’s market dominance from CIGS technology due to lag time in adapting lab record to commercial product. But growing momentum in research and sales make it a technology to keep watch over.

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September 23, 2015