Solexant Sees Bright Future for Thin-Film CIGS with Rebrand as Siva Power

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Silicon Valley solar technology company Solexant announces a relaunch and rebranding as Siva Power. The company is transitioning to focus exclusively on CIGS thin-film PV technology. CEO Brad Mattson spoke to PV Solar Report earlier this week about the relaunch.

Silicon Valley solar technology company Solexant has announced a relaunch and rebranding as Siva Power. The company is transitioning to focus exclusively on CIGS thin-film PV technology. CEO Brad Mattson, speaking to PV Solar Report earlier this week, said, “People talk about a pivot — this is more like a somersault.” 

The transition to thin-film CIGS

 

Why CIGS? The move might seem questionable at a time when many thin-film companies have folded. But Mattson believes the time is right for thin-film done right. He points out that “a lot of solar companies in Silicon Valley were founded when panels were selling for about $2 a watt, and it was exciting to get to $1 a watt. The rug was pulled out from under all these technologies — even if you get to $1 a watt, it doesn’t matter anymore. Trying to go to scale on a technology that was designed for this price point doesn’t make sense.”

 

What does make sense is trying something different. Solexant did that by looking at cost as well as efficiency. Mattson had his team measure every step in the manufacturing process: “Get out your pencil, sharpen it, see what it costs. We looked at performance and cost; when you use that cost filter, a lot of things dropped off. The technology the company was founded on fell out. We were data-driven, and the data pointed us right to it. Only a few of the technologies can meet 40 cents a watt.”

 

Having found the right technology means that the new company, Siva Power, can scale. In a press release today, Mattson said, “Unlike silicon photovoltaics (PV), our new approach provides a pathway to building the solar industry’s ‘factory of the future’ with gigawatt production capacity, and the world’s lowest cost in solar.”

 

The company is now ready to build such a factory, and they’re aided by a fresh team. That includes a new technical advisory board, with members like CIGS technologist Dr. Markus E. Beck and CIGS thin-film expert Dr. Rommel Noufi. The complexity of CIGS, Mattson believes, requires a team of stars, and the industry’s lack of maturity has made it easier to gather them. He says, “This adds complexity, it’s not an easy business model. But it’s really hard to duplicate this business model. That gives us a competitive advantage.”

 

The future of CIGS

 

Mattson is confident that thin film is the future. “It was the poster child a few years ago,” he said, “but there’s a reason people said it was the future. It wasn’t in the first wave but it will be in the second wave, or ‘Solar 2.0.’ It has the lowest-cost manufacturing process. And CIGs has gotten to 20.7% efficiency in the lab. That means thin-film doesn’t have to be at an efficiency disadvantage.”

 

Silicon panels, on the other hand, are in a tough spot. “They have low costs now because people are selling at losses, but if that industry is going to be sustainable they have to have some profit.”

 

An argument against thin-film has been that because solar materials costs have plummeted, soft costs are the place to save now — and thin-film’s lower efficiency hasn’t lent itself to saving on labor installation costs. Mattson says, “I think historically there’s been an argument there, but we’re getting to the point where that’s no longer a problem. Thin film done properly could absolutely minimize balance-of-system costs. But also panels have to get to 40 cents a watt — that’s almost a halving of costs from what we have today. Panel manufacturing costs have a role to play, and the panel guys are still the heart of solar. But CIGS provides a unique opportunity. We can get there in the lab, and though there’s a gap between the lab and manufacturing, that gap is narrowing. Manufacturing processes are key.”

 

In Solar 2.0, Mattson thinks the market will remain focused on solid rigid panels on roofs. More building-integrated thin-film will have to wait for Solar 3.0. “Thin-film can open up that possibility. For now, we want to win in the second wave. Silicon won the first wave. Technology tends to accelerate technology; as solar is more successful, materials companies like Dow will see a big enough market to get going.”

 

Mattson says, “The keys are how we finance and how we aggregate demand. We might see more business model innovation. The community solar idea is great. If we can unlock the potential of flat roofs like schools and warehouses, it’s one truck roll, one permit.”

 

The importance of financing

 

For now, Mattson doesn’t see technology as the biggest challenge of bringing thin-film to market. “The real challenge is financing. $6 billion of venture capital has been put in, so the technology is there, we just have to figure out what works. It’s just a matter of capital. We’re building mini power plants; that takes a lot of capital upfront, and finding new ways to bring capital in. That’s why what SolarCity just did with securitization is so important. What we need now is an infusion of capital.”

 

Though the financing challenge is a big one, Mattson says, “I’m surprised and encouraged by bigger private equity firms in New York. Solar is taking off, people see a market opportunity. A lot of places outside the US are allocating billions to solar. So we’ll see capital begin to come in. Capital follows opportunity.”