After a large number of companies developing thin film PV panels got huge amounts of venture capital funding between 2005 and 2008, a handful are now emerging with viable products.
Thin film PV panels are manufactured in a radically different way to traditional crystalline silicon PV panels. This means they have the potential to be dramatically cheaper than regular panels because the manufacturing process is faster, uses less energy and requires fewer raw materials. Despite this promise, thin film PV has a number of drawbacks. The mains ones are efficiency (thin film PV tends to 11% efficient at best compared with 16% for crystalline silicon) and reliability (early thin film panels showed signs of degradation).
Since the thin film companies got their money a few ago, many have fallen by the wayside. Setting up a thin film solar factory requires huge amounts of capital so a lot of companies just ran out of money and couldn’t convince investors to top them up with cash. On the other hand, there are a few who managed to actually complete their manufacturing lines and start producing solar panels. Unfortunately there is still a long way to go before the solar panels can be sold once that stage has been reached however. In all markets, solar panels are now seen as a long term investment. This means that investors need to have absolute confidence that the panels will last through their warranty period (usually 20 or 25 years). Proving reliability is no easy task. The panels have to go through months of intense testing, and many banks require at least 2 years of real field data before agreeing to lend money to projects involving those panels. This means there is a long, long wait before these manufacturers can actually sell panels in any large quantities.
Up until recently there were only one, or possibly two, thin film PV companies that had reached that point, the most notable being First Solar who are one of the two largest solar manufacturers of any kind worldwide. It seems that after all this time there is now a small selection of companies who may be about to join this list.
For me the front runners for this are the Californian company Miasole, the Japanese manufacturer Solar Frontier, and possibly the German company Q Cells with their Q.Smart thin film panels. Miasole have just announced a large sales contract with the well respected German distributor Phoenix Solar on the back of two years of testing at their Bavarian headquarters. Solar Frontier have announced a range of lucrative sales contracts around the world which should mean their panels should start to be seen much more widely in the near future.
There is still a long way to go before we know if people will start choosing silicon over thin film panels. They still have a lower efficiency, which means they have to be sold significantly cheaper than higher efficiency panels, but it could be that the manufacturing costs are so much lower (once they get to large scale production) that the thin film PV companies are still able to make a good profit when selling at much below current prices. Whether thin film PV enjoys rapid success or not, from now on there will be significantly more thin film PV companies to choose from.