Crystalline silicon (c-Si) PV manufacturers and the rest of the c-Si value chain certainly have enough urgent challenges with which to contend this year. But in their spare time, they may also wish to take a few glances backward to make sure that thin film remains safely in sight in the rear-view mirror.
‘During the past couple of years, the crystalline segment has been able to largely discount the threat from thin-film technologies, with the exception of First Solar,’ says Finlay Colville, senior analyst at NPD Solarbuzz.
The question is, how long can this comfortable market cushion continue?
Colville warns that the long-term competitive threat will not disappear, as industry experts continue to identify thin-film technologies that could ultimately be disruptive. A well-positioned big-name entrant could blow the market wide open.
‘The PV industry has yet to see some of the dominant [flat-panel display] manufacturers make a strong entry to the thin-film segment, and this is something to monitor closely moving forward,’ he says.
In an interesting twist, c-Si modules' pricing freefall may wind up claiming copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) manufacturers and other thin-film start-ups as victims by demolishing their silicon-free value propositions, according to Matt Feinstein, an analyst at Lux Research.
‘Many [thin-film] companies that were darlings of the venture-capital industry in 2008 and 2009 will leave,’ he says.
The survivors, however, could make a run at c-Si – eventually.
Angiolio Laviziano, former CEO and current board member of Mainstream Energy (parent company of San Luis Obispo, Calif.-Âheadquartered installer REC Solar and distributor AEE Solar), calls CIGS a ‘great technology.’
‘I don't think CIGS will take away from c-Si in the next five years, but it can eventually take a fair amount of market share,’ he predicts, noting that most CIGS manufacturers still lack economies of scale.
Cadmium telluride, on the other hand, has already made significant strides in capturing a slice of the PV installation market, Laviziano says.
‘But the market has grown fast enough that it hasn't really been a threat,’ he adds.
Arizona-based PV installer Stealth Solar still works exclusively with c-Si modules, reports Chris McKenna, operations manager. However, he is keeping his eye on thin film, particularly for ground-mounted arrays in desert environments.
‘In the long-run, it's a powerful technology that has its applications,’ McKenna says. ‘As they continue to improve and mature it, we'll see more of it.’Â Â
This Sun Dial column was originally published in the February 2012 issue of Solar Industry.
Editor's note: To submit your own contribution to Viewpoints, email Jessica Lillian at firstname.lastname@example.org.