Why Europe and the US failed to capitalize on the benefits of thin-film solar

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In light of thin-film solar’s very own “House of Cards” (i.e. Hanergy) and the recent troubles of those firms that are barely hanging on, a closer look at the checkered past of the thin-film solar industry is warranted.

Thin-film solar accounts for less than 5% of the global module supply. Yet, as First Solar has demonstrated, thin-film solar can be 2.5- to 3-times more capital efficient compared to c-Si — when accounting for the entire process flow from polysilicon through module assembly.

So, why aren’t investors attracted to thin-film solar?

While it may be an uncomfortable answer, the truth is that thin-film solar manufacturers, with the exception of First Solar, have failed to demonstrate economically viable technologies and operations. That single thin-film solar success story is overshadowed by dozens of failures — Abound, Nanosolar, Primestar and Solyndra serve as the most spectacular examples.

Has China achieved thin-film operational excellence?

It remains to be seen how the Hanergy drama will end — perhaps the Chinese leadership is convinced that their Chinese operations have acquired the skills to continue on their own, no longer requiring the know-how of the German and U.S. operations. If the technology transfer has been successful, Hanergy’s operations in China should demonstrate sustainable manufacturing.

However, given the status of CNBM’s AVANCIS and CTF Solar as well as CHN Energy’s NICE Solar Energy operations there is little confidence that Hanergy has mastered thin-film manufacturing. Operational excellence is a vastly underestimated element of economically viable manufacturing.

The fact that the processes championed by the above companies are poorly suited for high-volume manufacturing only adds to the problem. Manufacturing approaches rooted in academia and technology of the 1990s or early 2000s are not compatible with today’s, and even less so with future market requirements.

Even if the necessary innovations have been identified, the question remains whether these organizations have the will to implement them or the capital and time available to transition and ramp these highly advanced factories.

Learning from thin-film mistakes

While there are several mistakes for which the individual companies bear sole responsibility, learning from these mistakes seems to be a virtue not exhibited by those in charge. There are a few individuals who understood how to leverage the past expertise, capitalize on the lessons learned in both fundamental and applied research, and enable success stories to match that of First Solar. Due to lack of access to sufficient and patient capital — none of these ever saw the light of day.

‘Money makes the world go round’ is a recurring theme, and if we look back at the history of other emerging industries, there always is a gold rush phase giving rise to too many companies. However, what is atypical in the case of thin-film solar is that after about 25 years we are left with just one success — there should have been at least 5 or 6. Why was access to capital such a deciding factor?

In the age of publicly-traded companies, quarterly earnings, analysts (sitting in a office without any hands-on experience and comprehension regarding the industries they evaluate) investors do not like to invest in manufacturing — in particular as the assets are highly specific to the organization, and therefore next-to-impossible to sell. Asset-less or at least asset-light sectors on the other hand continue to see a huge influx of capital. As such the thin-film solar module manufacturing sector was doomed from the get-go, at least in Europe and the U.S.

China’s long-term and strategic industrial policy

In comparison, China operates at a far more long-term and strategic level. If the country’s leadership has identified a particular sector as of strategic importance — e.g. solar, Li-ion batteries, electric mobility, etc., it creates a policy environment that encourages massive investment into these sectors. This, in turn, creates a large number of private companies competing with one another for global market dominance.

A high percentage of these companies are ultimately nonviable. The best ones stand out and an entire ecosystem as well as a lot of expertise gets created, all to be fully leveraged by the small number of survivors. Since Europe or the U.S. have nothing to offer to their industries, the end result is indeed global dominance by the survivors of China’s internal runoff. At this point, the Chinese government rapidly scales back the subsidies and incentives, shifting them to the next industrial sector of strategic importance.

It is, quite frankly, mind boggling that the West has failed to conceive a strategy to counter the Chinese. How many more sectors are we willing to abandon? Wall Street alone cannot sustain the U.S. economy without manufacturing. Data from the U.S. Department of Commerce shows the manufacturing sector share of the U.S. economy to have fallen to a record low of 11%, steadily declining from 25% in the 1960s.

Are we willing to see the demise of the automotive industry next? Are we willing to sacrifice a clean environment and high-paying manufacturing jobs at the altar of Wall Street and its market indices?

It’s not too late for thin-film solar in the U.S.

As mentioned in the first paragraph, thin-film solar is superior in its capital efficiency. In addition, thin-film solar has a 3 to 5x lower CO2 footprint and a 2–5x higher energy return on energy investment compared to c-Si. Since the financial markets are unlikely to invest in thin-film solar on their own, politicians owe it to their constituents to create a long term industrial policy framework that directs investment into thin-film solar, and in turn creates high-paying jobs.

It is not too late — at present Europe and the U.S. still possess technological leadership in thin-film solar. The blueprints for economically viable thin-film module manufacturing exist. The recent insolvency by Calyxo (December 2019), failure of Siva Power (October 2019) and troubles at CNBM, NICE and Solar Frontier are insignificant in the bigger picture but offer valuable lessons.

Absent serious competition, First Solar might be next: it took First Solar over four years to abandon small modules and commit to its Series 6, although the concept had been conceived and proven to be viable. First Solar has not raised its hero-cell efficiency and has reduced its R&D expenditures over the last four years.

Is this the legacy we want to leave? Is this what we want all the excellent thin-film R&D in Europe and the U.S. to amount to?

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Markus Beck is a thin-film solar expert and a business and technology consultant who has served as the chief technologist of Siva Power and chief scientist at First Solar.