10 Solar Survival Strategies

Joyce Laird

Part 4. The last few years has been a rollercoaster for the solar industry. Many companies went under, so what did the “survivors,” do right? (Even if some of the survivors themselves continue to struggle...)

Note: this article first appeared in Renewable Energy Focus July/August 2012. Click here for a free signup.

Online: Click here for part 1, part 2 and part 3.

Stand out

In part 3 of this series, we saw the importance of companies differentiating themselves during these very tough times - finding strengths and capitalising on them: “Pick your areas and do them very, very well. Don't try to do everything for everyone,” explained First Solar's Alan Bernheimer.

Of course, the advice is just as valid for small firms as well as large ones and one company showing that you don't have to be huge to be successful in this economy is America's Stion Solar. Headquartered in San Jose, California, it is a a six-year old thin film company.

Low cost production

“There are a couple of things that differentiate us as far as our approach to the market,” says Stion's CFO, Doug Devine. “First, we manufacture among the highest efficiency solar panels using CIGS technology. We also produce the panels using high volume, standard industry tools. Many other thin film companies make their products using very customised equipment, which causes their product to be more expensive to produce. Our production cost is low and our high product efficiency is verified by NREL.”

Stion Solar wisely spent its first few years in product and manufacturing research and development (R&D). “We had to demonstrate both our product and manufacturing capability. Then in January 2011 we announced we would be building our manufacturing facility in Mississippi. We made our first commercial shipment from that facility in March 2012,” Devine says.

Thin film players have not been spared from the current solar turmoil of course, adds Frank Yang, Stion's VP of Business Development. “But, CIGS is like a cake,” he says. “There are many different varieties. Our product versus another manufacturer's product may be as different as night and day. All may be called CIGS, but there are many ways to create the product. Some just do not have the right technology as far as being cost competitive.”

As Yang notes, Stion has a very competitive third generation product with a NREL certified 14.8% circuit efficiency. “That is circuit not module. This is the first high production pane of its type to get third party certification,” he says. “What really differentiates us is our work in the tandem and triple junction cells. Over the next couple of years we intend to commercialise a tandem. Our R&D shows smaller tandem cells deliver at up to 18 per cent efficiency.”

Financial muscle

While other CIGS companies may be cost effective in manufacturing, “they don't have the financial base to really get into high gear without getting into heavy debt”, he adds. Stion, on the other hand, has a broad investor base. “These are multi-billion dollar entities, so we have a broad support base to work from.”

He adds: “It is very key that we keep a diverse and broad base of investors and strategic partners that are supporting the company because it is a difficult time to get any solar company off the ground and the old methods simply are disappearing.”

In December 2011, Stion announced plans to establish a subsidiary in Korea (Stion Korea), driven by a $130m equity investment led by Korea's AVACO and Korean private equity funds.

Existing investors Khosla Ventures, Taiwan Semiconductor (through VentureTech Alliance), Lightspeed Venture Partners, Braemar Energy Ventures, and General Catalyst Partners all participated in the funding round too.

Strategic partnerships

Significantly, the transaction includes a strategic partnership with AVACO, which provides thin-film processing equipment. The two are collaborating to develop next generation thin-film production equipment, focusing on lowering costs, improving tool productivity and increasing module efficiency.

Smart partnering is something China's Trina Solar has also done in the process of transitioning from being simply a provider of modules to becoming a leading provider of total solar solutions – serving the three main markets: residential, commercial and utility. It chooses leading technologies from other companies and then offers them as integrated solutions.

In the last six months, Trina has announced two world records using its Honey technology. “Honey technology is a configuration that uses optimised multiple components – the backsheet, the glass, the cell texture and the wiring – within a multi crystalline panel. This allows us to achieve higher panel efficiencies at very low costs compared to other panels,” says Mike Grunow, Trina Solar's Director of Marketing for the Americas.

“We developed Trinamount solutions and we will soon announce Trinasmart,” he continues. “This will be a series of integrated power electronics added into our panels. That will be followed by additional value-added services to assist customers in all the various markets.”

The original technology for Trinamount was developed by Zep Solar. “We combined quicker and easier-to-install mounting systems with our solar panel technology into one single-branded solution under our own warranty,” Grunow explains. “We are doing the same thing with Trinasmart, which is our integrated advanced power electronics DC panel. We have integrated the panel optimizer from Tigo Energy and we will be wrapping this with our full warranty.”

The Trinasmart Maximizer uses built-in technology to accurately and quickly find the exact optimal operating point of each module and prevents shading issues from diminishing the output of other modules. “This innovation results in up to 20 per cent higher power output for arrays impacted by shading, adds up to 8 per cent higher output for ‘perfect’ installations, and allows for varying string lengths and roof angles,” Grunow says.

And for Trina, success has come in other ways too. It was listed as the best solar energy firm in the world in the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition 2012 report – this rates all solar companies based on environmental practices, human resources, and good citizen practices. “We are very proud,” Grunow says. “This is the first time a Chinese company has been rated as the most environmentally friendly solar manufacturer on the planet.”

When the dust settles

What happens today is going to impact the industry for years to come. The leading solar PV players expect the upheaval to continue well into next year.

Eventually market prices will stabilise. Then the surviving manufacturers can catch their breath.

Only then, too, will the industry start to see overall volume grow into a true self-sustaining, global market.

But the message is clear. Smart business decisions today, will create the winners in this market tomorrow.

About: Joyce Laird has an extensive background writing about the electronics industry; semiconductor development, R&D, wafer/foundry/IP and device integration into high density circuit designs.

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