Thin Film PV Market Share Increasing

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Installed capacity, manufacturing capacity and investment in thin film solar technologies are all on the rise. According to the Prometheus Institute, global thin film market share is rising annually—from 8% in 2006 to 10% in 2007 to 14% in 2008—and even bigger gains are projected in the near future. What market conditions and product applications account for this trend? What specific characteristics of thin film photovoltaics support this market expansion?

Challenges on the Path to Scalable Platforms

Stefan Dietrich / Q-Cells / Thalheim, Germany / q-cells.com

Everything we do in the solar industry right now has to do with meeting our overarching goal: rapid cost reduction. Thin film technologies are being developed to speed up that process. With their relatively low material input and few production steps, they have an enormous potential for cost reduction. Where there is ample space and sunshine, thin film technologies are a real option, even if module efficiency is lower. That makes thin film photovoltaics an interesting fit for utility scale applications in markets like southern Europe and the US.

Another feature that will help advance a larger thin film market is aesthetics. With their homogeneous and often nearly black appearance, thin film modules—especially those using copper indium gallium (di)selenide technology (thankfully known as CIGS)—are a perfect match for building integrated PV applications. BIPV is certainly one of the future growth markets for solar. Thin film modules that can turn glass facades into power plants may help reconcile two old enemies: architects and PV designers.

The markets for thin film technologies will definitely grow, at least within the foreseeable future. However, thin film is complementary to crystalline PV technology. There is no imminent “changing of the guard,” as some proponents of thin film technology do not tire of claiming.

The potential for further cost reduction in crystalline silicon PV manufacturing is far from exhausted. New high efficiency cell concepts, new or optimized production processes and economies of scale all work in favor of this technology. It is an open race towards cost reduction and grid parity—and that is good for all of us. Bringing the industry forward and reaching grid parity are common goals of both technologies.

One key factor that will determine the success of thin film technologies is the need for a scalable platform. The growth potential is enormous, but nearly all of the players in the market still have to manage scalability. For some, this might prove to be an insurmountable hurdle. So what do we need to do to successfully master that challenge? Access to raw material is no problem, so far. This potential issue must not be underestimated for the future, however.

Access to intellectual property and key production equipment are more important at the current stage of development. Basically, this can be handled in two different ways. On one hand, proprietary technologies can be developed in house; on the other, manufacturers can purchase so-called turnkey factories.

Large technology players, companies that have already proven themselves in other fields, often supply these turnkey factories. At first glance, this appears to deliver a scalable way forward. Experienced external suppliers can provide much needed ramp-up support. They may also offer lessons learned from other turnkey fabrication plants developed by the same supplier. This kind of support can help meet the challenges of upscaling a technology platform. The counterarguments, however, cast a cloud on this picture. Such a solution has a relatively high monetary cost associated with it. The manufacturer is dependent on the supplier, and opportunities to further improve the technology in house are limited. In this light, turnkey solutions provide no competitive advantage.

Why not just build a better, more scalable platform in the first place? The potential reward is higher with in-house development of proprietary technologies, but so are the risks. For starters, you do not know if your solution is better until you have finished developing and commercializing the technology. A company that is confident enough might prefer this choice. But a “no risk, no fun” approach is not to everyone’s liking, especially when other people’s money is involved.

The logical conclusion to these thoughts is unsatisfactory, but unavoidable: There is no silver bullet when it comes to scalable platforms. Entrants to the thin film field will have to decide for themselves what path is best, and there is no guarantee that the chosen way will be the right one. But, of course, that is all part of the excitement, is it not?

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