Lux Research: Thin-film solar modules could challenge silicon in the coming years

The two leading thin-film solar manufacturers, First Solar and Solar Frontier, represent a combined manufacturing capacity of 4 GW. While they do not pose a short-term challenge to crystalline silicon players’ market dominance, ongoing innovations will ensure thin-film remains a significant player, according to Lux Research.

Of the two, First Solar is far bigger, with expertise in utility-scale systems and a new large-format module design that will help maintain its gigawatt-scale presence in utility-scale systems, as deployment grows in emerging markets. Solar Frontier has gradually diversified its business away from its home market of Japan and is making steps towards a rooftop building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) product.

“Both Solar Frontier and First Solar are moving forward to remain competitive with crystalline silicon. While First Solar will remain the thin-film leader, Solar Frontier has exhibited a willingness to form joint ventures to extend its scale,” said Tyler Ogden, Lux Research analyst and lead author of the report titled, “Tier-One Technology Tracker: Charting the Momentum of Thin-Film Leaders Solar Frontier and First Solar.”

Lux research thin film

Lux Research analysts compared Solar Frontier and First Solar, evaluating the two companies’ varied approaches, strengths and weaknesses. Among their findings:

• First Solar ahead on momentum. In Lux’s momentum analysis, First Solar had a score of 3.7, out of five, moving faster in technology progress and executing a competitive product strategy. Solar Frontier scored 2.9, moving adeptly into new markets through partnerships, while keeping pace in its financial position and manufacturing.

• Solar Frontier capitalizes on niches. Solar Frontier is taking steps toward a BIPV product, with preconfigured systems, flexibility and novel form factors. These are small differentiations in its current rooftop market, but can provide the groundwork for a larger BIPV industry with Solar Frontier at the helm, potentially a huge payoff.

• Challenges lie ahead for both. First Solar’s further growth hinges on plant-wide adoption of its Series 6 module and achieving systems costs below $1.00/W. Solar Frontier’s future rests on its ability to move its success in the lab to commercial production, and a partnership with a storage provider to integrate a lithium-ion battery option with its residential systems.

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


— Solar Builder magazine

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

Sneak peek at 106 MW solar project in Southern California

This week brought a ribbon cutting ceremony for Midway I & II Solar Electric Power Projects, located a few miles northwest of Calipatria in the great Mojave Desert in the Imperial Valley of Southern California. Behold:

solar frontier utility scale

Now that the ribbon is cut, Solar Frontier Americas says the two solar electric power plants, totaling 106 MWdc, are nearing completion.

“We focus on first-class execution to construct high quality solar systems that will reliably deliver high system performance in the long term,” said Charles Pimentel, CEO, Solar Frontier Americas. “Solar Frontier Americas Development team encountered several project challenges and through collaboration with the Imperial Irrigation District, local authorities and land owners, were able to effectively navigate solutions maintaining our high standard of quality and completing the projects on schedule.”

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

Solar Frontier Americas are local experts on development in the Southern California region with almost 166 MW of solar projects in operation or development. The company has a pipeline of over 400 MWs currently in various stages of development. The company also partners with small and medium size developers to support the completion of viable solar projects. For more information, contact their San Francisco offices at 415-230-5601.

Blattner Energy, recognized for building some of the largest and most complex energy projects in North America, handled the EPC services for the projects. Developed and constructed for high performance, both solar plants are installed with NEXTracker single-axis trackers valued for their ability to increase the system’s energy yield and autonomous row technology that enables easier access for operations and maintenance. The solar plants are constructed with Power Electronics rugged HEC PLUS, one of the most powerful and reliable inverters on the market.


— 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

Solar Builder Project of The Year Winner: Staten Solar’s Levee Mount

Levee Mount

Category: Ground-Mount (C&I)
Delano, Calif. | 522 kW


The agricultural segment has a conundrum when it comes to adding solar: it could benefit greatly from the power generation, but dedicating too much land for a sizable enough project will cut too deeply into its revenue. Wasting productive land just isn’t an option.

“Typically, farmers love their trees like their children, and they don’t want any harm to them or to their revenue,” says Sandipan Bhanot, president and CEO of Staten Solar Corp.

The owners of a farm in Delano, Calif., were just the latest example for Staten Solar, which has these conversations time and again since 30 to 40 percent of its revenue comes from agricultural installs. Solving this conundrum would be both a huge deal to its customers and its own business.
So, they solved it.

ground mount wnner'Enter the Levee Mount

To avoid using up too much agricultural land, the Staten team looked to an area you’d normally be advised to avoid — a nearby body of water. Farmers construct lagoons to pool water for any sediment to settle so it will not clog sensitive drip irrigation systems. The idea was to install solar panels along the levees of the irrigation lagoons to avoid wastage of more productive space.

In terms of space-saving, it was a no-brainer. Generally, a 500-kW solar system covers about two acres of land, but by strategically placing solar panels along the levees of the lagoon, 20 to 30 percent of the productive land and the associated annual crop revenues are saved. This also helps avoid deforestation. The farmer can now save tens of thousands of dollars every year by harnessing the power of solar energy.

But obviously, execution of the idea is easier said than done, especially considering no one had done it before.  “There are no off-the-shelf racking systems available,” Bhanot says. “Most of the companies you can think of will not supply anything for a project like this.”

Staten engineered its own solution, dubbed the Levee Mount, that had to be both structurally sound for this unconventional location and meet the stringent approval of the local building department.

By strategically placing solar panels along the levees of the lagoon, 20 to 30 percent of the productive land is saved.

By strategically placing solar panels along the levees of the lagoon, 20 to 30 percent of the productive land is saved.

Special considerations

Like any project, the Levee Mount started by accounting for regional wind loads, which is why they chose a strong galvanized steel foundation. But given the close proximity to water, this agricultural solar facility was constructed with special designs from Staten’s structural and electrical engineering staff.

Some examples: AHJ requirements called for at least 10 ft of clearance to the back. The structure also required sacrificial steel so that in the event of any corrosion, the integrity of the project would not be compromised for at least 25 years. They also galvanized the steel to improve its resistance to corrosion and weathering.

All of the posts that support the racking system were driven, which required equipment large enough to ram a 19-ft post into the ground. Some areas of the levees went up to 6 ft and had narrow embankments.

“There were lots of construction challenges; we had to build specialty platforms for the machines to stand on to start ramming through the levee into the ground,” Bhanot says. “This took place in Kern County [Calif.], and they have special inspectors that sit on site to watch and make sure that what was drawn is done in the field. So, that was an added source of anxiety, being unsure how they would respond, but it all turned out great.”

Oh, and there’s also the small matter of direct current lines being so close to a pool of water. Staten Solar wanted to use string inverters and try to minimize the DC wiring as much as possible.

“Normally we’d have, let’s say eight tables feeding one inverter, so we’d put that inverter in the middle of a table so that the cabling from all those tables can be minimized,” Bhanot explains. “In the Levee Mount, we didn’t want to do that. Here we have the inverters on the ground, with longer homeruns, which adds to the cost, but in the overall context it’s a miniscule cost increase for providing more safety because there is no AC voltage on the levees.”

Check out the other 2016 Project of the Year Winners

The levees went up to 6 ft and had narrow embankments.

The levees went up to 6 ft and had narrow embankments.

More Levee Mounts to come

This 522-kW Levee Mount project in Delano is just the first of many that have gone through the permitting stage and are awaiting construction as Staten Solar looks to make this strategy a bigger part of its focus going forward.

“We can go out to the customer and, if others say you have to cut down 300 trees, we can say they can preserve maybe 200 of them. Makes a huge difference,” Bhanot says.

In fact, the company is pitching customers as early as it can on the innovation to hopefully influence construction of the lagoons at the outset.

“Typically, we only install south-facing panels, so Levee Mounts can be done on the northern and southern edges of the lagoons,” he says. “We have been working with farmers so that they are now constructing their reservoirs based on our recommendation where the northern and southern edges are much longer than the east and west.”

After climbing this hill and placing PV on top of it, Bhanot thinks the next step to further improve PV’s value in the ag sector is getting AHJs on board with floating solar on top of the lagoon itself.

“We need to work with the AHJs to get them over the hump on that. We hopefully will have announcements on that next year,” Bhanot says, in what we can only assume is a spoiler alert for the 2017 Project of the Year awards.

— Solar Builder magazine