Thin-Film in 2016: Don’t look now, but thin-film PV is positioned for growth

Solar Frontier’s 900 MW plant in Japan provided the scale needed to improve pricing.

Solar Frontier’s 900 MW plant in Japan provided the scale needed to improve pricing.

A narrative has formed around thin-film PV modules that doesn’t totally match the reality. Initially neck and neck with crystalline silicon as the solar industry grew in the ‘90s, some high-profile big bets, headlined by Solyndra, did not pay off. We won’t rehash that old territory, but where previous technology and business plans faltered, the thin-film companies of today have refined and improved.

Scale to Success

One problem with past attempts at thin-film was scale. No thin-film manufacturers could really get there.
“Crystalline can be scaled by throwing labor at it. This is different,” says Charles Pimentel, CEO of Solar Frontier. “Unless you can do that [achieve scale], you can’t succeed at thin film. The upfront investment is too large, but once there, and you amortize that across volume, it takes substantially less from a resource and energy standpoint to manufacture the modules.”

Two of the bigger names in thin-film today do not have scale to worry about. First Solar, one of the largest solar companies in the world, has largely kept its CdTe panel technology to itself as it deployed gigawatts across the country in massive utility-scale projects. At Solar Power International this year, word spread around the show floor that the company was going to begin marketing its modules for distribution beyond its doors.

Solar Frontier and its CIGS modules seem poised to make just as large of a push. The company’s solar research and development dates back to the ‘70s, when it was just a small part of its parent company Showa Shell. In 2010, Solar Frontier started construction on a third plant that would significantly alter the trajectory of its technology — a 900-MW plant in Japan. This provided the massive scale needed to improve pricing. The company has achieved 4 GW of shipments globally.

But maybe more significantly, in 2015, the company completed its fourth factory, a smaller 150-MW line in Japan that is considerably more efficient than its other lines, applying years of learning from those other factories.

“The tack time has been reduced by 30 percent,” Pimentel says. “The efficiency has gone up considerably as well. All of that will net out to a reduction of cost in manufacturing of about 20 percent at full production.”

The plan is to take that improved process, scale it up and sprinkle additional facilities around the globe. They have a MOU with the state of New York right now to investigate the feasibility of a factory in its new solar region, for example.

RELATED: PERC Up: Boviet Solar tells us how it will provide high efficiency modules at a low cost

Thin-film efficiency

At a glance, thin-film can be dismissed because of its lower starting efficiency, but no solar panel value can be measured at a glance. For Solar Frontier, that glance is getting better all of the time. The company hit 22.3 percent cell efficiency recently, a CIGS record. Pimentel reminds us that most solar panel efficiency nameplate ratings are produced in a lab, under ideal conditions — conditions that are rarely seen in the real world over the life of a system.

The intrinsic value of any solar project always comes back to levelized cost of energy. Cell temperatures are always much higher than standard temperature conditions, so that initial, ideal efficiency is impacted by its intrinsic temperature coefficient. As the temperature rises, the real efficiency begins to shift. This is true of both crystalline and CIGS, but the speed at which the efficiency drops as temperatures rise is faster for crystalline than CIGS.

“Eventually, those two curves intersect and the efficiency of a crystalline module drops below our efficiency,” Pimentel says. “This means that crystalline modules will then end up at a lower efficiency in real world conditions than our modules.”

RELATED: How new solar module technology lifts efficiency, limits price 

What about the glut?

Forecasters warn of an upcoming module glut, an overcapacity that could bottom out prices and have a negative impact on module manufacturers. Will such a scenario bring us right back to the original problem, where thin-film loses out due to its lack of scale in an outsized market? Pimentel says Solar Frontier isn’t held hostage by the whims of the PV module market due in part to Showa Shell’s diverse energy interests, including its downstream investment in development pipelines around the world.

“We can focus our efforts on modules directly in markets where we can achieve greater margins where perhaps the Chinese and tier 2 have not made in roads, so they have no choice but to lower the price of their modules,” he says. “Showa Shell is an energy company that understands energy and manufacturing and is fully committed to the needed investment to bring our product to scale.”

Chris Crowell is the managing editor of Solar Builder.

— Solar Builder magazine

Driving pile in Minnesota: How Landwehr handles longer than normal piles up north

Hercules-pile-drivingLarge-scale solar projects are becoming more common in Minnesota, and as you might expect, installation of these projects requires a different approach than large-scale projects in those popular desert climates.

An example would be a new 5 MW AC Project south of the Twin Cities. On approximately 20 acres, two factors in particular require a different approach. The ground is mostly dense sand with little cobble, and a Minnesota winter’s frost can affect uplift. So, what’s the answer in such a situation? Longer piles with more embedment depth.

The project was contracted with Landwehr Construction to handle the pile driving. Landwehr, based in St. Cloud, Minn., had the experience with helical piers and bracing needed to find an answer to handling the extra pile length. Although the company has been around since 1895, solar work was not one of its areas of expertise until recent years.

“We began doing helical piers and bracing to support our precast division,” said Robert Schofield, Landwehr’s foundation estimator.  “A few years ago we hired a senior estimator with over 25 years of experience building renewable sites. We paired his knowledge with our crews who typically perform highway heavy, crane and site work. The combination of experience and skill set has worked out very well for us.”

In addition to the right crews, Landwehr needed to acquire a new machine to handle this job. It turned to the Hercules STR-20 for a number of reasons, the biggest being its 29-ft boom. “On the west side of the array, it is very dense sand, so all the piles are 22-ft tall, requiring 15 ft of embedment,” Schofield said. “The Hercules machine is currently the only one on the market capable of driving a 22-ft pile without pre-drilling the holes.”

RELATED: Hammer Time: What to look for in your next pile-driving machine 

Schofield estimated that using standard equipment would have added a minimum of three crew members and at least one other piece of equipment to the job.  The job also moved along more efficiently due to the STR-20’s ability to free-float the hammer, which can save time on each pile. “You can physically push the pile in the ground until you can’t push it in anymore, then switch to the hammer,” Schofield said. “So, on this site, we can push them in anywhere from 4 to 6 ft and then hammer them in the rest of the way.”

The STR-20 also sits on a turntable, allowing it to spin 360 degrees and do two rows in one pass. “It all comes down to saving a few seconds here, a few seconds there,” Schofield said. “It really adds up over a couple thousand piles.”  Their success can been seen in the numbers. Landwehr began driving pile for this project on Sept. 1 and only experienced four refusals out of 1,800 piles.

Chris Crowell is the managing editor of Solar Builder.

— Solar Builder magazine

2016 Project of the Year Editor’s Choice: No Energy Left Behind

beardWe say it every year: When it comes to solar projects, we are all winners. We already announced the winners of our 2016 Project of the Year vote, but we at Solar Builder liked a bunch of the other submissions too. Here is the fourth and final entry in our series of Editor’s Choice winners. These are projects that didn’t garner the most votes from readers but we felt were still pretty darn cool too.

Previous Editor’s Choice posts

North Putnam High School & Middle School


North Putnam Schools were in need of physical upgrades, and Johnson-Melloh Solutions (JMS) proposed a solar panel farm on 6 acres as the answer. JMS also introduced a capital lease agreement through a non-debt service finance program via a community bank that required no upfront capital and did not raise any local tax levy with a positive cash flow in Year 1 — after the annual lease payment. Facilities can rely on stored power during peak times to lower bills, and excess energy can be fed back to the grid at a constant rate over the course of the day, resulting in lower bills. Transmission and Distribution infrastructure at the school facility caps the amount of power that can be transmitted back to the grid to 500 kW — a limitation easily overcome by the brains of the energy storage system. Students get a hands-on lesson in energy efficiency because they can monitor the JLM Energy’s Measurz software dashboard real-time on kiosks located throughout the school.

North-Putnam-High-School-2Location: Bainbridge, Ind.

Size: 1.6 MW

Completed: March 2016

Developer: Johnson-Melloh Solutions

Contractor: Johnson-Melloh Solutions and JLM Energy

Modules: Boviet

Inverters: Fronius

Mounting: Solar FlexRack

Grenada Elementary & Delphic Elementary


A major project goal of the Grenada Elementary and Delphic Elementary installations was to demonstrate and measure the investment benefits of renewable technologies for schools. All funding for the PV Tracker project was procured by SES from California’s Prop 39 job creation program, bundled with other energy efficiency measures for the schools. The program requires the tracker bundles to show an SIR of greater than 1.05. The tracking systems are currently generating nearly 530 MWh of clean electricity per year, saving the districts more than $8,000 annually in utility costs.

Location: Grenada & Montague, Calif.

Size: 22 kW & 7.3 kW DC

Completed: May and June 2016

Developer: Sharpe Energy Solutions

Contractors: Sharpe Energy Solutions, Double J Electric, Willpower Electric and Price Excavating

Modules: LG

Inverters: ABB

Mounting: AllEarth Renewables


— Solar Builder magazine

2016 Editor’s Choice Projects of the Year: Beyond the Project Impact

beardWe say it every year: When it comes to solar projects, we are all winners. We already announced the winners of our 2016 Project of the Year vote, but we at Solar Builder liked a bunch of the other submissions too. Here is the third in our series of Editor’s Choice winners. These are projects that didn’t garner the most votes from readers but we felt were still pretty darn cool too.

Previous Editor’s Choice posts


Calipatria Solar Power Plant


Due to the flat terrain, low regional labor costs, high irradiance levels of the sun and support from local jurisdictions, this is an exceptional area for solar production. The Calipatria solar power plant reaps the advantages of the area and contributes to local economies through employment, tax revenues and local business services support. But, even cooler, San Diego Gas and Electric recognized Solar Frontier Americas for exceeding their supplier diversity goals while working on Calipatria. The California Public Utility Commission has set a goal for the state’s investor-owned utilities to procure at least 21.5 percent of their expenses, including electric and fuel costs, with Diverse Business Enterprises (DBEs). DBEs include women-, minority-, service-disabled veteran- and LGBT-owned businesses. San Diego Gas and Electric encourages power project developers to subcontract with DBEs during development and construction as well.

Location: Calipatria, Calif.

Size: 21.99 MW DC

Completed: February 2016

Developer: Solar Frontier Americas Development LLC

Contractor: DEPCOM Power

Modules: Solar Frontier

Inverters: Bonfiglioli

Mounting: Clavijo Single-Axis Tracker


Pahrump Solar Project


This project required collaboration by Valley Electric Association, Bombard Renewable Energy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the Mojave Desert tortoises discovered at the project site. Key to this was the project’s racking system from Solar FlexRack. Because of the versatility of the racking system, all the special onsite requirements to protect the tortoises’ habitat were able to be met. The project is a milestone example of balancing the construction of a renewable energy project and protecting the indigenous wildlife, particularly in this case — the desert tortoise. It demonstrates how development, construction and wildlife conservation can work together to achieve mutual environmental goals.

parhupLocation: Pahrump, Nev.

Size: 17.5 MW

Completed: July 2016

Developer: Valley Electric Association

Contractor: Bombard Renewable Energy

Modules: SolarWorld

Inverters: Yaskawa-Solectria Solar

Mounting: Solar FlexRack

— Solar Builder magazine

Financing beyond FICO: Using asset-backed loans, PACE to get solar deals done



A solar system as an investment for a homeowner or business has value that goes beyond a typical property improvement purchase or equipment upgrade. Because PV offers both ecological benefits and economic advantages for a property, new and unconventional financing vehicles are available — and can be offered by you to your customers.

Asset-backed loans

Commercial buildings can get a huge return from a PV system, but at a huge cost, which is obviously an impediment to installation. It’s easy for a Walmart-type business with accessible credit to fund a system, but how does a nonrated business accomplish it? Small businesses don’t exactly have Scrooge McDuck money swimming pools to dive into, and to make it all more complicated, many have a ton of debt. Conventional lending wisdom would rule them out for a loan to finance such an upgrade right there. This is why the commercial sector is lagging further behind than it should.

But remember, a PV system isn’t your typical property upgrade — it is a revenue-generating asset. This is why a company like Open Energy feels comfortable focusing on the potential of the asset itself to back its power purchase agreement (PPA) financing program.

Let’s use that supermarket as an example. It is a building that’s open all of the time, has narrow margins and high electricity bills. At a 7 percent interest rate, with no money down, this supermarket off-taker can enter into a predictable energy contract through a third-party owner and allow a developer with the appetite to invest in the asset to do so.

“We are providing a loan for the solar power plant to provide the cheaper electricity for the supermarket,” said Graham Smith, CEO of Open Energy. “In this example, we’re not saying we want to lend to supermarkets; we provide the loan to the solar power plants. We’re lending against the solar process. We’re confident that it’s going to be generating power over a period of time.”

RELATED: Beyond the rooftop: How offsite PPAs change the game for solar professionals 

The sweet spot for these deals for Open Energy is the $1 million to $3 million project — 500 kW to 5 MW, with most ranging from 1 to 3 MW (Open Energy will lend up to $10 million). The PPA route bypasses traditional hurdles for your customers in this range as electricity needs are offset without incurring more debt on their end.

“Because it’s asset-backed, we’re lending ultimately to the solar project,” Smith continues. “We’re only ever lending to the individual power plants, which allows for a lot of scale for much less risk.”

If PPAs are so enticing, why isn’t everyone doing them? These deals can be a hassle and carry big transaction costs, but Open Energy’s technology-enabled underwriting, in-house legal department and standardized process allow for a streamlined path to funding and permitting at a reduced cost.

“Look at the $100 million loan needed for a coal-fired power plant; we’re just making a $1 million loan to support, say, a supermarket,” Smith notes. “We just focus on slimming that down to make it much more affordable.”

PACE Financing

PV is more than revenue generation — it is a societal good. States that are ahead of the curve are opening up new pathways for homeowners and business owners to upgrade their property while improving their commitment to sustainability.

One option gaining steam is property assessed clean energy (PACE) funding. This is a broad instrument that owners can use for a variety of energy efficiency upgrades, solar being one of them. The headline here is PACE funding isn’t exactly a loan; it’s a public/private partnership that’s essentially a lien on the property that is paid back through property taxes. Funding approval takes as little as 30 minutes.

RELATED: The trend to ownership: What it means for your solar installation business 

“The big thing is that unlike traditional credit-based financing, we don’t consider FICO scores for eligibility,” says Louis-Philippe Lalonde, chief marketing officer of Ygrene Energy Fund, one of the leaders in PACE funding. “Eligibility is based on the equity in a home or business — up to 15 percent — and not on a property owner’s credit score, proof of employment, income or financial statements.”

Now, could a lien on the property hurt a home’s value if an owner is looking to sell, similar to the problem with solar leases? PACE payments are legally transferable upon sale; however, some mortgage lenders may require full repayment of the special tax upon sale or refinance.

“With 100 percent financing and no upfront payment, PACE provides the most accessible and affordable way for property owners to pay for solar upgrades,” Lalonde says.

PACE funding can add a level of consumer protection because pricing and work quality are made consistent. This is not just a valuable tool for homeowners to install solar, but also a way for contractors new to solar to get into the game. Ygrene, for example, trains and certifies the contractors it works with.

“A significant portion of our contractors are not the largest contractors. We enable mid-sized contractors to get into the business,” Lalonde says. “They don’t have access to a lot of financing tools, and they get looked over by traditional credit-based financing programs because they don’t do as much volume. But for us it’s a really good market.”

Renovate America, which does a majority of the PACE funding in California, closed its eighth securitization of PACE bonds at the end of September — the largest such deal completed by any issuer and a designated green bond. HERO green bonds have received significant interest, in part, because they do not fund aspirational or speculative projects; the proceeds have already been invested in home energy and efficiency improvements projects whose environmental impact is verified. Since its inception in December 2011, the HERO Program has financed more than $1.83 billion of improvements in more than 75,000 homes throughout California.

The success California has had boosting its solar industry through PACE financing could be repeatable in other states that start to approve PACE funding as an option. Missouri just OK’d it, with Georgia and Arkansas close behind. Lalonde sees Florida as the next big opportunity for PACE.

“I was there when we sold the first solar lease and thought it would change everything, and it did, but now that PACE is getting off the ground, I think it will change not just solar but a broad spectrum,” Lalonde says.

Chris Crowell is the managing editor of Solar Builder.

— Solar Builder magazine