Copper-indium-gallium-diselenide, also known as CIGS solar cells are enabling a new suite of flexible applications from solar roof tiles to consumer electronics such as Apple and Samsung smartphones. CIGS have the competitive advantage that they can be deposited on flexible substrates as opposed to conventional solar panels, which enables a variety of niche products. A recent market research report by IDTechEx entitled, “Thin Film Photovoltaics and Batteries 2012-2022,” predicts that although only less than 70 MW of CIGS solar cells were characterized by flexibility in 2012, over 240MW will be flexible by 2017.
CIGS solar cells were a hot commodity a few years ago before the erosion of selling prices for pricey conventional silicon solar panels on the market, offering a cheaper alternative. As a result, many CIGS solar cell manufacturers have exited the industry or been sold at fire-sale prices. They were a lot more appealing at that time for commercial-scale solar power projects connected to the grid. CIGS remain somewhat attractive for building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) but have been elevated lately for off-grid solar applications.
For example, a French company Disasolar, a distributer of flexible CIGS solar cells has distribution agreements with CIGS manufacturers such as AscentSolar, SolarPower, SoloPower and Flexcell, addressing off-grid markets such as military applications, car roofs, buses, and stand-alone power generation in developing countries. One of the most interesting products of Disasolar includes a custom-designed flexible photovoltaic system (PV) for light-armored vehicles in the field of battle.
Amid extremely difficult business conditions for thin-film solar manufacturers, Ascent Solar, which was recently uplifted financially by Chinese conglomerate TFG Radiant, has also shifted its business strategy towards off-grid solar products. It now has its EnerPlex line of products available geared towards portable solar chargers for smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy and Apple iPhone product lines.
However, the market size encompassing military, consumer electronics and off-grid power stations is considerably smaller than for BIPV but offers a higher profit margin suite of applications for revenue streams prior to ramping up for higher volumes associated with larger-scale power generation projects. In addition, CIGS solar production costs are expected to fall at one of the fastests rates over the next five years of any of the thin-film alternatives, making them a prime candidate to displace conventional silicon cells.
A Tucson, Arizona-based venture-backed CIGS solar company called Global Solar focused on BIPV announced this week it is significantly scaling down its operations. Its flexible solar panels were designed for roofs that cannot bear heavy weight or to become embedded in roofing materials for either retrofits or new construction. However, the company’s strategy was to avoid the use of glass in the subsequent products, making them prone to moisture and requiring expensive encapsulants.
Global Solar signed a deal several years ago with Dow Chemical to create CIGS solar roofing shingles. Partnering with a large company meant Global Solar could find synergies with Dow to help grow their business. Having a limited customer based and high reliance on Dow made them vulnerable during the downturn in the housing market, which ultimately delayed the launch of roofing shingles. Even though Dow finally launched the solar shingle product about a year ago in Colorado and later in Texas and California, the sales revenue was too slow in coming in order to maintain full-scale operations. Also, Global Solar did not emphasize off-grid solar applications to the degree several CIGS competitors are now doing that has generated a diverse and less risk-averse product portfolio.
Believe it or not, the power-hungry Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy smartphones with short-term battery lives may be the savior for many flexible solar technology companies. What’s more, Samsung has already announced its plans to produce next-generation smartphones with flexible displays, which offer a plethora of attractive consumer benefits.