IN-DEPTH: Spate of investments in European thin film companies depict a rosy picture

An in depth look at the recent spate of investment in European thin film companies.

The EU recently reinforced its commitment to renewable energy with an EU-wide directive that commits the EU to 20 percent renewable energy targets by 2020.

Specifically from the solar industry perspective, a lot would depend upon Germany's continued support.

Going by the recent past, there have quite a few developments, which denote progress in the thin film module segment, especially in Germany.

Last month, the European Commission backed nearly 100 million euros ($129 million) in aid to two solar power projects in Germany.

The Commission authorised, under EC Treaty state aid rules, 56 million of regional investment aid, which the German authorities awarded to Sunfilm for the production of thin-film solar modules in Saxony, Germany. (Good Energies and Norsun have established Sunfilm AG to manufacture 5.7m tandem thin film photovoltaic modules on glass substrates on a production line supplied by Applied Materials, Inc.).

The balance around 40 million of aid was approved for ersol Thin Film GmbH for the production of thin-film solar modules in Erfurt.

Post this aid, ersol, a company of the Bosch Group, projected an output of around 30 MWp in the thin-film segment, despite the current difficulties on the market. ersol, which operates a production line for thin-film modules based on amorphous silicon (Nova T series), has also shared plans for amorphous microcrystalline tandem cell technology for silicon thin-film technology.

Among others, Sontor GmbH, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Q-Cells SE, produced and sold 3.6 Megawatt peak (MWp) of modules last year. Sontor's plans for 2009 are to further improve the utilisation of the 24 MWp production capacity. Additionally, Sontor plans to increase the research and development activities in Bitterfeld-Wolfen. Also, the ramp-up of the first production facility for micromorph silicon thin-film modules in Solar Valley Thalheim is on schedule.

The company produces micromorph silicon thin-film photovoltaic modules, which consist of two extremely thin layers of silicon (one amorphous and one crystalline) on glass. Last month, Torsten Brammer, CTO, Sontor, shared that the modules are currently achieving stable efficiency levels of up to eight percent in relation to the 1.8 square metre total area of the module. At cell level, stable values of up to 9.3 percent efficiency on the active surface have already been achieved in the current ramp-up phase.

Commenting on the most promising opportunities for various thin film technologies in Europe, Paula Mints, Principal Analyst PV Services Program, Navigant Consulting, said all thin film technologies have a role to play in the future direction of the solar industry.

"Though, the next year at least will be difficult, there is stronger global acceptance of thin films. That is, for the most part, these technologies are no longer viewed as a risky choice. In sum, during the downturn, thin films can continue to progress towards higher efficiency and lower manufacturing cost - though, all lower cost does is give more cushion in the margin," said Paula, who is scheduled to speak during Thin Film Solar Summit Europe, scheduled to take place on 19-20 May in Berlin this year.

According to Paula, as demand is softer in the near term, technology development from pilot scale to commercialisation will be less pressured.

Elaborating on the same, Paua said, "For the past couple of years there were high and unrealistic expectations placed on the time to commercialisation -- these need to be viewed more realistically. It is more important that a technology perform well, than it is that it gets out of the gate quickly."

"During slower times, innovations in BOS to make less efficient thin films less expensive to install can (and should be) pursued. In the end, thin films are appropriate for rooftop and ground applications and highly appropriate for BIPV. Though BIPV is barely a niche market at the moment, the development of flexible products and new form factors can move the industry more towards green building. All applications and all technologies are necessary to help Europe meet its goal," added Paula.

Progressing from pilot scale to commercialisation

With reference to progress made by Sontor GmbH, Paula feels that all micromorph manufacturers are about in the same place. Companies such as Uni-Solar (U.S.), Kaneka (Japan), and others have been pursing development of this technology for several years.

"It takes a long time to progress from pilot scale to commercialisation, and I put most of these manufacturers at either pilot scale, or emerging into an initial stage of commercial production. As the PV industry is in for at least one year of slower demand, possibly two, there is time for necessary efficiency improvements for micromorph," said Paula.

"I don't see this as a situation with one clear winner, more as a situation where different paths will emerge as more successful than others. All paths need to lead towards higher efficiency, and I would say that this should be >8% to start and much more competitive at 10%. However, this is not trivial. The industry needs all of the micromorph technologies (no matter the region) to emerge at a successful efficiency and manufacturing cost. We need to learn from each other. In sum, it is early days yet, let's give these emerging technology paths time to emerge," concluded Paula.

Thin Film Solar Summit Europe 2009

Paula Mints, Principal Analyst PV Services Program, Navigant Consulting is scheduled to speak during Thin Film Solar Summit Europe, scheduled to take place on 19-20 May in Berlin this year.

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