Thin Film vs. Silicon Ingots

In response to our post of October 20th, “The Photovoltaic Revolution,” a reader made the following comment: “It seems that there are dozens of companies announcing that they are about to produce megawatts of low cost solar cells. When they actually ship and with a warranty for ten or twenty years I will believe it. Until then they are just like the hundreds of other companies whose main output is press releases.”

This is absolutely true.

We have been watching photovoltaics very carefully for over ten years, and there have been a lot of false alarms.

It isn’t easy to find information about the commercial status of thin film photovoltaics. When we searched in Google, our investigation led us to the U.S. Energy Information Adminstration’s website, to a page entitled “Solar Thermal and Photovoltaic Collector Manufacturing Activities 2005.”

In this report, on table F-9 “Market Share of Thin Film Shipments, 1996-2005″ you can see that last year thin film accounted for 25% of U.S. photovoltaic manufacturing. This is up from only 12% in 2004, 10% in 2003, and around 5% for most of the preceding years.

A related statistic can be found from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s report, with data through 2004, entitled “U.S. Market Share” (of worldwide photovoltaic manufacturing). In this report you can see that in 2004 1.2 gigawatts of photovoltaics were produced worldwide, and the U.S. only contributed about 140 megawatts, less than 12%, to that total. Moreover, ten years ago, the U.S. manufactured nearly 50% of the world’s photovoltaics, but as the world production went up by an order of magnitude, the U.S. production merely doubled.

It would be interesting, therefore, to see the thin-film share of world photovoltaic production. But it is safe to say that the growth in U.S. production, if it does take a great leap forward, will be in the thin film arena. And the fact that the U.S. is already commercially manufacturing 35 megawatts per year of thin film photovoltaics proves that claims of imminent increases to thin film production of orders of magnitude are not entirely unfounded. A commercial product does already exist.

By the way, in 2001 we covered the thin film manufacturer First Solar, in the story “First Solar – Production Line PVs.” Apparently they were within months of launching a 100 megawatt per year thin film production line. A false alarm? Perhaps, but that was then. Today First Solar did their IPO, as reported on the excellent website SolarBuzz, among other places.

Will the promises of thin film technology turn out to be hype? Another bubble, kind of like the fuel cell IPOs? You never know, but my money is on thin film photovoltaics to change the world.

6 Responses to “Thin Film vs. Silicon Ingots”
  1. Alan says:

    According to Photon International, thin-film represented 6.5% of worldwide PV production in 2005, up from 5.9% in 2004. This represents a slight reversal of recent trends, as thin-film made up 7.5% of worldwide production as recently as 2002 and 13.0% in 1999. (As I recall, it was about 30% of the PV market way back in 1990.) The reason the American thin-film market share numbers are so big is that crystalline silicon production has not been expanding in the U.S. at nearly the rate it has overseas while American thin-film producers have made modest production increases — enough to outpace foreign thin-film manufacturers, but not enough to cause an appreciable jump in worldwide thin-film market share.

    Thus far, the upturn in thin-film’s fortunes have been almost purely an artifact of the current silicon feedstock shortage. It remains to be seen whether the thin-film PV industry will take full advantage of the situation through rapid (and successful) capacity increases. Sass Peress of ICP Solar speaks of projections of 17% market share for thin-film PV by 2010 (from a recent industry conference), but that would require one of two things: (i) thin-film capacity expanding at a significantly greater rate than crystalline silicon capacity, or (ii) thin-film production increases significantly outpacing crystalline silicon production because of the feedstock shortage. Thin-film producers have yet to show that they can scale up at the rates crystalline silicon producers can, though they finally seem to be making some progress on that front. Nonetheless, the latter means of gaining market share strikes me as the more likely of the two if the 17%-market-share scenario does indeed come to pass.

  2. Sass says:

    Great comments. What I suggest will happen is that the crystalline guys, in an effort to “cover all bases” will be the ones to really turn up the jets on thin film production. Just wait until we get Sharp amorphous modules into the market in 2007 and you’ll see a significant shift in their marketing strategy which so far has been to emphasize the “better ratings” of crystalline vs amorphous. Now that they will be “one of us”, I believe the message of “horses for courses” will be utilized far more and thus provide demand-side improvements for thin film acceptance.


  3. Hey,
    I love what you’e doing!
    Don’t ever change and best of luck.

    Raymon W.

  4. MaryAnne says:

    I’m not quite understanding what all
    this is supposed to be about?
    Must be me or something…

  5. Ed Ring says:

    The point is production of thin film silicon photovoltaic panels are increasing at a far greater rate than crystalline photovoltaic panels. Since the crystaline photovoltaic panels currently dominate world PV production, and since their production is doubling each year, thin film promises to catalyse PV production even further in the near future. This likelyhood is further validated by the fact that thin film PVs are cheaper to manufacture than crystalline, and have lower quantities of expensive polysilicon per watt of electrical output.

    The point is we believe smart-money projections of worldwide photovoltaic production increases over the next 5-10 years are greatly underestimating what innovation is going to deliver.

  6. Mario says:

    The difficulty in characterizing and measuring these thin films makes things all that much more difficult as well.


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