First Solar, which broke the $1.00 a Watt price barrier last year, is currently the low cost leader in being able to produce (non-silicon based) thin film at $0.76 cents a Watt, and they have been rewarded with contracts from major utilities such as PG&E for solar thin film installations on a utility scale.
But now Swiss solar equipment manufacturing giant Oerlikon Solar has announced that their company can enable solar manufacturers to produce their amorphous silicon thin film modules at a cost under $0.70 cents per watt (€ 0.50). Silicon is both more widely available and more sustainable than typical thin film solar; that contains rare earth minerals.
Their new equipment to mass-produce thin film silicon solar modules lowers costs by making it possible to use thinner layers of silicon, reducing material costs, and it uses more reflective back sheets that can capture stray electrons escaping around the edges otherwise; increasing efficiency.
Those changes reduced the capital expenditure for its customers by 25%, enabling solar panel production with (NREL rated) 12% efficiency, almost half that of the most efficient traditional solar.
(The lower efficiency of thin film just means that it just takes more square feet of panel to make the same electricity. But since it can be painted or printed directly on glass windows, plastic and other cheap construction materials, it is not the great flaw you might think.)
This has been a year of major shake ups in thin film solar. Until this year, the relatively lower price for thin film was its competitive strength against traditional silicon-based solar. But with the worldwide ramp-up in solar production, silicon prices also dropped dramatically, battling thin film on its home turf, low cost.
Thin film producers became simply unable to compete on what had been till now, their strength – prices lower than those for traditional panels.
As a result of the precipitous drop in silicon-based solar, making it more competitive with thin film, even Applied Materials got out of the thin film solar business a few months ago, no longer able to compete with silicon-based (traditional) solar PV.
However, as a wholesale supplier of equipment to the solar industry, to make panels with, the award-winning innovator is at the beginning of the supply chain. So panels made on this equipment won’t be producing power in a field or on a roof till 2012. If the recent past is any indication, during this much time in this very fast-changing business, anything could happen.