First Solar+GE Vs Solar Frontier Vs Hanergy – The last men standing?

In April 2012, I had the opportunity to present on the topic at an event in Germany about the reasons for dominance of Thin Films in India(view the presentation here) but there were already indications that Thin Film technology was losing momentum across the world at a significantly fast pace. Solyndra went bankrupt in August 2011 and Abound Solar followed soon in January 2012. Since Abound Solar was among the companies that had sold modules for projects in India, the problem of bankability of these companies were highlighted in the presentation. Not long after that, there was a parade of thin film companies that marched into oblivion through bankruptcies and insolvencies or acquisitions.
The wave of consolidation is now entering a crucial phase with the announcement of the acquisition of GE’s CdTE technology by market leader First Solar and the acquisition of the third CIGS company, Global Solar, by China based Hanergy. Before looking at how the Thin Film landscape looks now, let us briefly go back in time.
Back in the good old days of late 2011 and early 2012, crystalline Silicon(c-Si)  Vs. Thin Film PV technology was a very hotly debated topic. There was so much fascination around Thin film technology and many of the thin film start-ups were raising record money after the spot price of Polysilicon(the feedstock for c-Si technology) prices touched an all-time high of more than $400/kilogram in 2008. Venture Capitalists were backing rival thin film startups irrespective of their technology(amorphous silicon(a-Si), CdTe or CIGS) and thin film technology developers included names like Solyndra and Nanosolar. A very good compilation of such companies can be found at GTM Research here.  Despite this, the market share of thin films deployed in the field globally remained in single digits.
But things were different in India. Due to the Domestic Content Requirement in the JNNSM Phase 1 which allowed the import of Thin Films which were cheaper and had more financing options, Thin films firms, especially FirstSolar rapidly gained market share which was disproportionately compared to elsewhere in the world.
The good fortune of Thin Films started to wane when the spot prices of Polysilicon touched record lows of around $20/kg by early 2012 and the resultant drastic reduction in the prices of c-Si modules. In fact, the biggest advantage of Thin Films over c-Si – the price difference – was fast eroding and Thin Film companies were starting to feel the heat across the globe. What followed was the wave of consolidation.
It is important to note that bankruptcy was not limited to Thin Film companies, but also crystalline Silicon companies and component suppliers in the other parts of the solar PV value chain. We had compiled a list of companies that were forced to consolidate from September 2011 to March 2013 here and here.
Back to the present
The Thin Film market is now down to a select few stronger players in each of the 3 dominant technologies – a-Si, CdTe, CIGS.
CdTe – It is now official. There is only one company worth any standing in this technology, and that is First Solar. The company, through some deft maneuvering, integrated forward and became one of world’s largest EPCs and project developers. The company also has been making significant improvements in efficiency of their cells. With the acquisition of GE’s higher efficiency technology IP, the rate of efficiency improvement is expected to accelerate. At least that is what First Solar claims.
CIGS- With the winding down of Nanosolar, there are two major players in CIGS camp – Japan based Solar Frontier and China based Hanergy. While Solar Frontier has grown organically with strong support from its promoter Showa Shell Sekiyu K.K, Hanergy acquired 3 CIGS companies over the last year(Germany based Solibro and US based Miasole and Global Solar Energy) thereby solidifying its position as one of the leading CIGS companies.
Both Solar Frontier and Hanergy are strong companies and these companies can be expected to be around for a long time and perform well. Solar Frontier especially is experiencing record sales thanks to the growth of the domestic Japanese market and has ramped up production.
(Switzerland based, Flisom has been quietly working on flexible CIGS modules and has the backing of Tata Group, and the technology development is led by Dr. Ayodhya Nath Tiwari.The firm is currently way too small in comparison to Solar Frontier or Hanergy)
a-Si – This technology is being promoted by Dupont, Nexpower and a few other companies. The technology has limitations when it comes to module efficiencies, but is likely to be around for some time.
The consolidation of the thin film industry is now almost complete, with only 3 major players left in the arena – First Solar, Solar Frontier and Hanergy. That does not mean that there will be no other players, but the rest of the players will be on the fringe playing a minor role. How these 3 companies will reshape the industry is the question that awaits answers.
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5 thoughts on “First Solar+GE Vs Solar Frontier Vs Hanergy – The last men standing?”

  1. It seems that efficiency won over PV Panels capital cost. BOS is the key. That’s why only the companies that went to EPC (ie First Solar) won the competition. It is interesting that on the opposite end of PV Panels technology (high efficiency PV Panels), Sunpower also made the move to transform into an EPC company.

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