By Katie Fehrenbacher
An eight-year-old startup that has survived hard times and a major pivot has set a new world-record goal for itself: making the world’s cheapest solar panels at $0.28 per watt, whether that’s in the U.S. or in China. The company’s name is Siva Power (originally founded with the name Solexant) and it says in another four years it could make these thin panels at that price at a 300 MW factory that it hopes to fund and build.
It’s an ambitious target. Siva Power originally was looking to make thin-film solar panels by printing the material cadmium-telluride in the form of nanocrystals on to rolls of a flexible metal foil. But it — along with the dozens of other thin-film solar startups like Nanosolar, Solyndra and Miasole — faced tough times when the price of silicon (the key ingredient in traditional solar panels) dropped dramatically and Chinese companies flooded the market with cheap solar panels funded by low-cost government loans.
As companies like Solyndra went bankrupt, the company — then known as Solexant — decided to begin pivoting and in 2011 hired current CEO Brad Mattson to lead a new direction. Mattson previously founded and led chip companies Novellus and Mattson Technology and was a partner focused on solar at venture firm VantagePoint Venture Partners.
Now Siva Power is focused on making thin film solar panels out of the material combo copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS), which is the same material that was under development by Nanosolar, Solyndra and Miasole. The company said it’s using the manufacturing technique co-evaporation to deposit the compound straight onto glass panels, which are then encapsulated. Other CIGS panels makers have mostly focused on depositing CIGS onto metal foils, which are then cut into strips, assembled on panels and encapsulated in glass.
But to get to this $0.28 cost per watt point, Siva Power will have to build a 300 MW pilot factory, which is large for a pilot line for an emerging technology like CIGS panels. Japanese solar company Solar Frontier — part of Showa Shell — is one of the only companies making CIGS at scale and it has a 900 MW annual capacity factory. Siva Power thinks the 300 MW line can get it to $0.40 cents per watt, and another two years of efficiency tweaks could get it to below $0.30 per watt.
Siva’s 300 MW factory could cost $100 million, which is a big sum for a startup, particularly a venture-backed startup in a market that has faced a lot of struggles. The issue with some of the early CIGS companies is that they spent a lot of money on factories before their technology was perfected for commercialization. While Siva Power was originally looking to scale straight up to this 300 MW line, it’s now using a $15 million funding round from the city of Wuxi in China to build a smaller pilot line first.
Twenty eight cents per watt is cheap, to say the least. The Department of Energy is funding a solar program called SunShot, which is looking to push solar panels down to a price under $0.50 per watt by 2020. Other competitive thin film and CIGS companies can make solar panels for around $0.55 to $0.75 per watt. First Solar broke the under $1 per watt barrier in 2009.