Solar Thin Film Technology Is Taking Off

The solar thin film market seems to have entered a phase of rapid growth. With a production capacity growing at an average of 48% a year, and total global production of over 12 Gigawatts (GW), the global photovoltaic (PV) industry is said to be worth around $50 billion. This industry is also going through rapid change, with technology constantly improving and solar thin film getting, well, thinner and thinner.

First Generation Solar Experiencing Growth

Although there has been no major changes to the simple crystalline solar cell since its inception in the 1950’s, significant improvements are now being made, with competition getting fierce.

Now regarded as “first generation” PV, mono- and poly-crystalline cells have seen significant growth in volumes. However, their high demand for silicon has led to shortages and increasing costs for manufacturers. So volumes have started to drop off. If silicon prices were to drop, these solar modules may be able to compete with the second generation solar thin film modules.

Second Generation PV Is The Way Forward

“Second generation” PV, or solar thin film technology, seems to be the way forward for a price competitive market. By requiring far less material, faster cheaper manufacturing processes, and shorter supply chains, thin film solar is a wide open industry. So to gain competitive edge, the major producers are not so worried about improved manufacturing efficiency, but rather about securing intellectual property and gaining access to capital. This is good news for consumers, since even lower prices from economies of scale are still to come.

Types Of Solar Thin Film Technology:

To date there are three main approaches that thin film manufacturers are taking, based on what material they use for the PV cell’s semi-conductor.

1 – Amorphous Silicon

The first material to be used was amorphous silicon pioneered by United Solar Ovonic, also known as Uni-Solar. This approach, now used by various companies worldwide and making up over 60% of the PV market, uses a small amount of amorphous silicon alloy.

This type of solar thin film has been successfully sold over the years as an undetectable roof material for both commercial and residential buildings. In the United States alone, sales in 2008 amounted to 73 Megawatts (MW) or $1.8 billion in sales. And with current production capacity at 118 MW, the US has planned growth to 1 GW (1000 MW) by 2012.

2 – Cadmium Telluride (CdTe)

The second type of semi-conductor material used is cadmium telluride (CdTe).
The advantage of CdTe modules is that they are quicker to produce, however, they are way less efficient at just over 10%.

The clear leader in using CdTe is First Solar with a production capacity of over 1 GW, and contracted sales of over 3.8 GW or $6.3 billion through to 2013. And with a cost per watt of only $1.29, First Solar have gross margins twice that of their competitors. Good news for consumers is that First Solar expects the cost per watt for CdTe modules to be under $0.70 within 3 years time.

3 – Copper Indium Gallium Di-Selenide

The third type of semi-conductor material used is Copper Indium Gallium Di-Selenide (CIGS) – Whoo! What a mouthful! CIGS modules have boasted efficiencies nearing 20%, which is much higher than CdTe panels and almost that of crystalline silicon (first generation) modules.

This market is dominated by private companies, such as Nanosolar in California, Heliovolt in Texas, Global Solar in Arizona and TerraSolar in New York. But the latest competitor to hit the market is Honda – a leader in crystalline silicon cells, who plans to use their existing production process to manufacture CIGS solar thin film modules, and reap the benefits of this second generation technology.

The Benefit of Solar Thin Film Modules

The advantage of all of the solar thin film technologies is that very little of the semi-conductor material is needed – over 99% less silicon is used, compared to crystalline modules. Furthermore, being extremely thin, the modules can be produced very quickly using high-speed roll-to-roll printing.

The drawback of solar thin film is its lower efficiency. Yet, new manufacturers continue to enter the market almost monthly.

Video: Konarko’s New 1 Gigawatt Facility In Massachusetts

The Third Generation PV?

The future of solar PV seems to be going beyond solar thin film , to make the modules even thinner. The market is approaching the third generation PV technologies.

New approaches such as organic cells, dye-sensitized solar cells, nano-modified materials, quantum dots, and nano-antennas, offer higher efficiencies and even lower costs than second generation PV. However, it is not clear which of these approaches is leading the way, with only private companies and government funding the research and development.

The US to dominate the solar market

Currently there is a high concentration of second and third generation PV companies in the US. And with our new President Obama and his renewable energy policies, economists believe many international companies will be flocking back to the US.

Although better economies of scale have traditionally been achieved in Asia, it appears that as fast as US companies move to Asia, overseas manufactures are building facilities in the US.

For example, Germany’s SolarWorld has opened “the US’s largest solar cell factory” in Hillsboro, OR. And even Japan’s Sanyo Electric is building a facility in Salem, OR.

With the rush of new developments taking place in advanced solar technologies in the US, it is likely that the US could become the global leader in solar market. But it is still too early to tell. But what we do know is that the sky’s the limit for solar thin film technology.

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Originally posted 2009-01-23 12:55:11.


  1. Posted January 24, 2009 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    This is GREAT to hear. We’ve been researching various solar PV options for our brownstone in Harlem. We have one house that runs completely on solar, but it’s not in an urban environment.

    Solar Hot Water technology is fairly mature, with evacuated tube systems being able to provide an abundance of heat and hot water in very cold climates, but Solar PV is still too expensive and bulky. Let’s go thin film!

    My original post on the various systems are here:


  2. Posted January 25, 2009 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    Hey Anthony,

    Thanks for stopping by, and great article on evacuated tube systems!
    We agree that solar PV systems are still expensive, BUT if you are able to
    find cells for cheap (yes there are ways) and build the panels yourself, then
    you can save a heck of a lot of money!

    It just depends how DIY you are willing to go 🙂

  3. Posted March 18, 2009 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    great but stil energy from sun is expensive

  4. Posted April 6, 2009 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    Silicon production should get ahead of demand around 2010 according to projections. So the 1st gen panels will still remain competitive. Good news is that soon they will be reaching grid parity ($/kw) and that will really boost the investment.

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