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Nanosolar, Miasole stir up solar cell market

Two Silicon Valley start-ups that are poised to deliver more cost-effective solar cells to the red-hot solar market have scored venture capital from leading local firms Kleiner Perkins and Mohr Davidow.

(Update: Friday's Mercury News story on this is here or here)

Here's the scoop: nanosolar.jpgNanosolar, of Palo Alto has won $20 million in a round led by Mohr, Davidow Ventures. Other investors include Japanese engineering conglomerate Mitsui, and OnPoint, the U.S. Army's venture fund. We wrote about Nanosolar recently here.

miasole.gifMiasole, of San Jose, meanwhile, has raised about $16 million in a round led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. We wrote about them in a broader story last year, here.

This is good news, because it suggests the cutting-edge technology developed by these companies -- thin-foil instead of bulky silicon-based panels -- is really going to be viable soon. Instead of years out, as some had assumed, this stuff will be delivered as soon as this year, we're told. That's great, because it creates a virtuous cycle: If the cells are as cheap as the companies say they are, government subsidies will be reduced, and large companies will see the economic benefit of buying the solar cells for their rooftops. Slowly, homeowners will start buying too. It's great for the environment, and for our long-term supply of power.

Now, Miasole's chief executive David Pearce tells us that the two firms, Kleiner and Mohr Davidow, both were seeking to invest in Miasole (he called it a "bake-off"), and that he ended up taking money from Kleiner. We hasten to add, we don't know any more details. Perhaps the interest was because Miasole's technology has been used successfully in the disk-drive and optical industries, and so it was a safer bet at the margin, than Nanosolar, which is setting its own course. Perhaps not. Both are using the copper alloy called CIGS for their solar cell semiconductor material. (Update II: MDV's Erik Straser led the investment in Nanosolar, while we're told Kleiner's Aileen Lee led the investment in Miasole. Notworthy because we mentioned them both here.)

But the people we have talked with about the market lately, including Mohr Davidow's Straser, and Barry Cinnamon, of Akeena, one of the nation's largest installers, all agree...

...that the market is red-hot: You'll sell whatever your produce, because of significant excess demand. So there's more than enough room for two players in a solar market that is around $5 billion this year, and likely to be $6 billion next year.

Note: DayStar Technologies, a public company of Halfmoon, New York, which also produces silicon-free solar cells on foil, said it had gotten an order from Blitzstrom GmBH, a German company for about $60 million. Be cautious of this though -- despite the fact the company's shares rocketed 61 percent today. Because apparently the company hasn't even delivered a product yet. See the big "safe harbor statement" at the bottom of its announcement, saying it is subject to "risks" and "uncertainties." As both Pearce and Nanosolar CEO Martin Roscheisen told us, it's not about the technology at this point, it's all about the production process -- making it all run smoothly at an economy of scale that will keep the cells as cheap as possible.

Update III: Here's VentureWire (sub req) on the Nanosolar investment.

Update IV: Gillmor on this, and the problem of patents.

Update V: Martin, of Nanosolar, has written in to address some of the questions posed in comments. Here are his answers:

"What is the approximate efficiency of the copper-indium-gallium-diselenide material?"

See http://www.nrel.gov/ncpv/thin_film/pn_techbased_copper_indium_diselenide.html

"With 19.5% efficiency under standard test conditions, the best CIGS cell is about as efficient as the best polycrystalline-silicon cell."

--> CIGS can be as efficient (and durable) as conventional solar cells. CIGS cells can be almost 20% efficient -- however, this is at laboratory scale and uses fairly expensive process technology. Companies that seek to produce CIGS modules commercially will generally initially shoot for the 12-15% range as the sweetspot that optimally trades off cost and performance. In this range, CIGS modules are still as efficient as the bulk of the silicon modules on the market today. With further R&D, modules as efficient as 20% can then come to market. [Note that the best other thin-film module on the market today, Unisolar's, is 6.2-6.4% efficient...so CIGS modules will be essentially twice as efficient.]



Comments

Do either of these companies have projections as to how much production modules might cost? I have an estimate for current production modules of about $5/watt. I'm considering building a solar car, and at this price, the panels become the most expensive part of the vehicle. Also the thin foil aspect of the new process sounds like it could be applicable to an irregular form like a car.

Danny Mattijetz on June 10, 2005 9:17 AM
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Flexible solar material is already on the market and has niche applications. Unfortunately field performance show that while conventional, rigid silicone solar cells have a relatively long performance life (approximately 20 years, give or take), the flexible solar materials degrade rapidly reducing their effective life to about 25% of conventional silicone modules. Does anyone know the performance over the useful life of this new foil solar material? If so, please provide that info, if not, what's all the excitement about?

jeff lebow on June 10, 2005 4:55 PM
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Maybe David and/or Martin will chime in, but I can say that Martin (CEO of Nanosolar) told me last week that his cells last for 25 years (that's a 25 percent increase over the 20-year lifetime Jeff mentions for silicon). Clearly, we don't know whether he'll make good on it, but Martin has been making a big deal about performance life for quite some time.

Also, here's Nanosolar's website on cost:

http://www.nanosolar.com/understandingcost.htm

..and other comparisons with silicon:

http://www.nanosolar.com/economic.htm

Matt Marshall on June 11, 2005 8:56 AM
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What is the approximate efficiency of the copper-indium-gallium-diselenide material? Sharp makes a module that is 13.45 percent efficient, where a 62" x 33" module (14.2 sq ft) generates about 175 watts.

Mike Biferno on June 11, 2005 5:50 PM
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Martin, of Nanosolar, just wrote in. I've placed it in the extended entry of the original post as an update.

Matt Marshall on June 13, 2005 7:01 AM
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Ms Fiona Jiang on June 22, 2005 12:54 AM
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I have confidence in David/Miasole's process. It creates megawatts from the smallest footprint of equipment I've ever seen and the cells are stable and affordable. To boot, they can be shingled, stringed or otherwise put together making them much more affordable to finish into modules. Daystar is still a daydream, though we should never dismiss (remember those saying that nanosolar was decades away) so there is a lot of interest in seeing how these disruptive technologies are going to displace the giants who have built hundreds of megawatts of silicon cell factories thinking that big is better. As Mike Lipkin (motivational speaker) says "the new big is small".

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www.sassperess.com
www.icpsolar.com

Sass Peress on July 18, 2005 10:08 PM
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Miasole's proprietary technology is unlike any other sputter deposition process and will most likely lead the way.

Chris on August 9, 2005 9:03 AM
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Is Miasole planning to build or expand into a new manufacturing facility?

Kenneth Yasmer on August 15, 2005 8:44 AM
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