Thin-film manufacturers had to come up with a Plan B a few years ago, and many are adapting and succeeding with unusual products. According to a new report from Lux Research, businesses are leveraging thin film's flexibility, light weight, and aesthetics and enjoying growth – not to mention premium prices – in niche markets.
‘A lot of the small thin-film start-ups found out in 2012 they could not compete with Chinese crystalline silicon giants,’ says Lux research analyst Ed Cahill. ‘So they are looking at other markets.’
Cahill authored the report, ‘Into the Niche: Putting a Magnifying Glass on PV's Tiniest Markets,’ which notes that thin film will grow in four focused application areas: building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV), electronics, transportation-integrated PV (TIPV) and military. Lux Research forecasts that these niche markets will reach 1.2 GW of new products sold in 2024.
Also according to Lux Research, the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region will be the largest solar niche market in 2024, but Asia will have the highest growth rate. EMEA will grow from 66 MW in 2013 to 505 MW in 2024, while Asia-Pacific will expand at a 23% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 27 MW to 315 MW. Meanwhile, the Americas market will grow from 61 MW to 340 MW.
Cahill says the growth in Asia will be mostly in BIPV because of the high new construction rates in some Asian countries.
BIPV has been around the longest and is the largest category, the report says, with a projected 17% CAGR to 893 MW, up from 140 MW in 2013. The category includes shingles, facades, windows and skylights.
‘It is a good growth rate, but you do have to temper it,’ Cahill says. ‘You're starting from a very small market.’
Also, BIPV could compete with traditional rooftop solar installations and, thus, could take some growth away from established PV technologies. At the same time, some of the disadvantages of BIPV relative to traditional PV could serve to limit its potential in many markets.
‘One of the limits on BIPV is it has to go into new buildings because it's hard to retrofit,’ Cahill says. ‘Also, there are distributed generation subsidies for traditional PV.’
Solar-enabled electronics, such as chargers for cell phones and other devices, is a niche the report forecasts will grow at a 35% CAGR to 199 MW in 2024. The audience for such products used to be outdoors enthusiasts who wanted to charge their phones while backpacking, but it is rapidly expanding to include any consumers who fear their gadgets will run out of power.
The virtue here is that the relatively low capacity of the devices conceals the relatively high price per watt at this scale.
‘That's definitely one reason why suppliers are targeting it,’ Cahill says. ‘The wattage here is so small that they can sell solar chargers for five dollars a watt.’
Transportation has a smaller audience of purchasers because of its limited benefits. For car buyers who perceive a solar panel to be valuable, there are few choices. There is a Toyota Prius with a solar panel to power a fan to ventilate the car, and the Ford C-MAX Solar Energi Concept car, which uses solar to recharge the vehicle.
‘It's more for people that want a green look to their car,’ Cahill says.
Lux Research forecasts that TIPV will grow to 56 MW, at a 23% CAGR. Of that total, 35 MW of TIPV will be in cars, with trains, aircraft and boats being much smaller applications.
Drones might be one application, the report notes, but it will depend on demand and regulatory barriers.
Military applications include solar in forward operating bases that rely on diesel generation. This use is forecast to grow 13% to 13 MW. The growth will be small because the U.S. and other governments are moving forces out of Afghanistan, Cahill says.
Nora Caley is a freelance writer based in Denver.