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Abound Solar, Sunovia Chasing After First Solar

Cadmium telluride-based thin film solar cells are certainly the technology of the moment. Following First Solar's announcement in February that it's producing cells for under $1 per watt, two more firms, Abound Solar (previously AVA Solar) and Sunovia have lined up with news of their own.

Of the two, Abound is the more mature firm, having taken a big $104 million funding last year. Now the company is finishing up construction on a 200 megawatt plant, which will reach full capacity in about a year. But the company is betting that it can beat First Solar's 98 cent per watt production cost within three months, according to statements by CEO Pascal Noronha in Reuters.

That's a pretty audacious claim, for a company that currently has only a fraction of First Solar's output. Noronha claims the key is in factory efficiency, with most of his line fully automated. But cost per watt is not the only important metric; others, like cell efficiency and weight, also figure in. And if First Solar is worried, it certainly has time to invest in improvements to its process.

Next year will see First Solar at over a 1,000 megawatts of production and Abound at 200 megawatts, although the race will not be on in earnest until both are producing at higher volumes. That may not take long, though. First Solar will certainly be looking to capitalize on its market leader position, and Abound is chasing after over $500 million in Department of Energy loan guarantees, according to Clean Technology Investor.

Sunovia, the dark horse of the three, is a much smaller company with a somewhat unusual technology that nevertheless relies on the CdTe chemistry.

The company's technique involves layering CdTe over a standard silicon cell to create what's known as a multi-junction cell, capable of achieving higher efficiencies than ordinary silicon (which in turn is much better than a plain CdTe cell). Combining the two technologies, Sunovia hopes to put a lower cost on typically pricy high-efficiency cells.

Is it competitive with First Solar? Yes and no. If it can pull off its efficiency trick, Sunovia will be First Solar's polar opposite, and the market will likely treat the two as if they're in different industries. But tellurium is in short supply, and if First Solar and competitors like Abound get to scale up as quickly as they like, the commodity stockpiles might not keep up.

Don't count on that to stop Sunovia, though. The company just took in $9 million from the Department of Defense to expand manufacturing. In all likelihood, the company will also be searching for private investors for a follow-up on its $12 million venture capital round, taken last May.

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