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The Dating Rules for CIGS in Solar

I’ve been saying for a while, that with enough money, someone is bound to crack the CIGS nut in thin film, and deliver the cleantech sector another First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR) like renaissance for the always around the corner technology.

That’s not because it’s easy, or even because it’s a good idea to try, but when well over a billion dollars in investment pours into a given technology, something is bound to come out the other side – eventually. A seductively high efficiency potential technology with very low potential materials costs, CIGS has been just over the horizon for a decade or more, but has enjoyed a huge influx of capital and increase in the number of programs chasing in over the last 5 years. Similar to other solar thin film technologies, device complexity, effective yield, throughput, and process control issues are always the bugaboo.

Given its seductivenes, its somewhat capricious nature, and the siren filled history of the technology, perhaps we should think of CIGS like a woman, and all men need a few dating rules of the road to keep in mind before we jump in. Here are mine (for CIGS, not women):

Number one, like most thin film technologies, $100 mm in investment is the ante up to play the game. Just because you spend it doesn’t mean you get real product out, and with CIGS, you tend not to know whether anything is workable until oh, say $50 to $100 mm is already spent.

Number two, what you think you know, you don’t. Until the pilot plant has been operating for a few years, companies generally really underestimate what they don’t know.

Number three, remember those experiments and great idea you sold your investors on, the hard part is not there, the hard (read risky) part is ALL in the “it’s just engineering” end of the scale up process you told the investors was “fairly straightforward”. This isn’t IT, it’s deposition with a very commoditized end product.

Number four, whatever the projection as far as timing, add 3 years, maybe 5. I’m not kidding here, I said years.

Number five, when the words “fast”, “roll to roll”, “reel to reel” or anything else equating to speed in the process are in the pitch deck, translate that to read excruciatingly slow in the development timeline, and lots of “issues” popping up in those nasty yield and process control areas.

Number six, when investing, be very careful about that “yield” number and the “capacity” numbers they made up based on it. All thin film development companies keep “little black books” with the data and charts on every process run they’ve ever made. Read every single one of those charts, and ask lots of stupid questions about why only 4% of the total square footage produced is above 6% efficiency in run XYZ. Think in terms of “effective total average yield”. That’s where the problems are hiding.

CIGS watchers have a number of darlings to follow. There’s Miasole, which now under new management is rumored to have substantially tightened down its development discipline to take it’s shot, Nanosolar, another Silicon Valley venture darling that has been described by many observers along the lines of, “never met hype they didn’t like”, but with a seductively low cost printable process if they can get it to work, Solyndra, the “stealth” company with the big sign on I-880, Heliovolt, the Texas-based hot CIGS deal of last year, which burst on to the fundraising scene on the back of it’s still extremely early stage “FASST” technology. And those are just the largest of the US based venture backed deals, without including Honda, IBM, DayStar, Ascent Solar, Solopower, and literally dozens upon dozens of others around the world with significant backing (though all at a very, very early stage). Wikipedia has a decent cut at a list, though by no stretch of the imagination comprehensive.

My best estimate is that most of the venture investors in each of those deals personally looked in depth at the manufacturing process of single digit numbers of competing approaches before investing. And only read the little black book on two of them. That strategy was tried, with ahem, “mixed” results, in fuel cells a few years back. We’ll see how well it works in thin film solar.

And of course, as with most things in solar, the major players should probably be watched more carefully than the startups. I’ve always liked larger companies to crack thin film issues, in no small part because the term “stage gate” tends to mean something to them.

But my personal favorite for front runner currently is Arizona based Global Solar, a solar company I have been following for years. Their announcement a few months ago of 10% efficiency in production runs, was pretty much lost in the crush of press around solar, for reasons unfathomable to me.

While admittedly not yet proven in a full production environment (they are working on the scale up to 30 MW plants) they do have the massive advantage of having run virtually the only operating CIGS pilot plant in the world – and I believe has shipped more volume of CIGS product than anyone if not everyone else. True to form, that technology, which originally came out of the Tuscon Electric backed ITN Energy Systems labs in Colorado which later did Ascent Solar, has had an estimated $150-$200 mm plus invested in it over the last decade, before Solon AG bought the company for a reported $16 mm. Though to be fair, current management under CEO Mike Gering was brought on well into that process. So while I’ll keep my fingers crossed that some one will crack the CIGS nut, and continue to be flabbergasted at the $1 Bil plus valuations estimated to have been acheived by some of the startups named here for very large science projects, when it comes to the one to watch, Global Solar is my personal pick.

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is the founding CEO of Carbonflow, founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks, Chairman of Cleantech.org, and a blogger for CNET’s Greentech blog.

Cleantech Blog "Power 10" Ranking Vol. I

I spend most of my day meeting and talking to companies in the cleantech sector. And those of you who know me know I have opinions on who is doing it right, and who is doing it wrong. So I thought it was about time to initiate the Cleantech Blog Power 10 Ranking of cleantech companies doing it right. Eligibility for inclusion in the ranking requires meeting a 6 point test. Suggestions for inclusions in future volumes are welcome. The 6 point test:

1. The company is energy or environmental technology related
2. I like their products
3. The market needs them
4. The company is smart about building their business
5. I’d like to own the company if I could (for the right price, of course!)
6. It is not already one of mine (my apologies to my friends Zenergy Power)

I have included cleantech companies big and small. Volume I surprisingly ended up with a lot more solar companies than I would have guessed, and no biofuels. Perhaps I really am a closet solar fanatic.

  1. Sharp Electronics – In solar, still the biggest, and still growing. Enough said.
  2. Det Norske Veritas – DNV is a massive 150 year old risk management firm. Their auditors underpin roughly half of the carbon markets. In carbon, audit and verification is everything. I could not leave them off.
  3. IBM (NYSE:IBM) – What IBM is doing in smart grid is very exciting. They are part of a large proportion of the smart grid implementations that are in process, and a huge proponent of open standards. Smart grid is to electricity what fiber is to telecom. It underpins everything.
  4. Applied Materials (NYSE:AMAT) – The future of photovoltaics lies in scaling thin film manufacturing process. Who better to do this than the dean of semiconductor capital equipment. I broke the story of Applied’s entry to solar in the blogosphere in 2006, and if anything underestimated how hard they were pushing. The whisper mill has been whirring that the installations of their plants are not on track. Not only do I have faith they will get there, I think it is critical to the industry that they do.
  5. Fuel Tech (NASDAQ:FTEK) – I wrote about them in 2007. The CEO John Norris is a long time friend and an excellent operator. Cleaning up coal is a huge business that needs to be done, and they do it well.
  6. Fat Spaniel – Distributed power, solar included, is a ticking time bomb without independent monitoring. Fat Spaniel does it the best.
  7. Smart Fuel Cells (XETRA:F3C.DE) – I wrote about them recently. I helped create a fuel cell business in 2002. This is the first fuel cell company in 5 years that has intrigued me. They actually ship product with solid gross margins. That is a start.
  8. First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR) – Lowest cost producer in the photovoltaic business. Guaranteed to make the list until dethroned.
  9. Global Solar – I have been following this company for a long time. CIGS is very hard and has broken (or is currently breaking) hundreds of millions or billions of dollars worth of wannabes. This management team, led by Mike Gering, respects how hard it is. And since they have actually been running a pilot plant shipping product for 3 years, so we need to take note when they say they have cracked the manufacturing scale nut.
  10. Schott – Long a major player in crystalline silicon photovoltaics, amorphous silicon photovoltaics and concentrated solar thermal, where they are one of the top manufacturers of solar thermal receivers. That balance is unique, and exciting.

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks, Chairman of Cleantech.org, and a blogger for CNET’s Greentech blog.