Global Solar Hits a New Efficiency Milestone

Last Updated Sep 16, 2009 8:01 AM EDT

Efficiency announcements come with a kind of calming regularity from thin-film solar panel companies, spurred not so much these days by internecine conflict as the desire to prove they're still viable competitors to silicon-based panels. The latest to trot out numbers is Global Solar, which has reached 15.4 percent efficiency on its best cells, and an average efficiency of over 10 percent on its production panels.

Those numbers put Global Solar on par with the few other thin-film CIGS companies that actually have a product to sell. Nanosolar, which just started production at its own plants, claims 16.4 percent efficiency for its best attempts, and is also closer to 10 percent in actual production -- a number that's becoming a baseline for thin-film companies to stay competitive.

The CIGS thin-film that Global Solar makes, however, are a bit different from most of its direct competitors. Instead of glass, the company prints its cells onto a flexible stainless steel substrate. While intended to be cheaper than glass, using steel also opens a significant new application, building-integrated photovoltaics.

For now, that probably will mean power-generating roof shingles, which Dow Chemical partnered with Global Solar to create. Tim Teich, a vice president at the latter company, says there's a large market just waiting for a product, even with the effects of the housing implosion still fading. "There are always tens of thousands of homes being re-roofed, and feed-in tariffs around the world are adding a benefit for putting solar on the roof," he says.

Teich says Global Solar is producing about 20 megawatts of cells yearly from its two plants, which have a total capacity of over 70MW; the company was in the act of scaling up production when the recession hit, and simply stopped to wait out the storm. "We're preparing for the uptick, and we'll be ready to turn these [plants] on. They're not difficult to throttle up."

In the meantime, he says, the company will continue to work on improvements to its cells, with the support of its investors (mostly unnamed European private equity players).