Solar start-up scores with series of tubes

Maker of CIGS thin-film solar tubes secures $600 million in funding and $1.2 billion in contracts.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
3 min read

Solyndra, a start-up making thin-film photovoltaic systems, has secured $600 million in funding.

It's additionally secured $1.2 billion in contracts from clients in the U.S. and Europe, the Fremont, Calif.-based company revealed Tuesday.

What start-up gets that kind of funding and client promise? Basically, one that's invented thin-film solar panels shaped like old-school fluorescent lightbulbs.

Solyndra's series of tubes offer a unique angle on solar power. Solyndra

Since 2005, Solyndra has quietly been developing a proprietary CIGS-based thin film photovoltaic (PV) system and a staff of more than 500 employees.

CIGS is a material that includes a combination of copper, indium, gallium, and selenide. It's now being used by quite a number of companies to make thin-film solar cells among other things.

Solyndra's cylindrical PV panels don't have to be spaced to leave room for rotation toward the sun as with flat solar panels. The panels are actually rows of cylindrical tubes which are installed horizontally and close to one another.

The tubes can "capture sunlight across a 360-degree photovoltaic surface capable of converting direct, diffuse, and reflected sunlight into electricity," according to Solyndra.

Solyndra panels consist of tubes that can absorb sunlight from all angles. Solyndar

The company also says that because of this unique shape and mounting system, more productive solar surface area can be packed onto one roof than with conventionally shaped panels. Subsequently, its system is able to generate "significantly more solar electricity on an annual basis" compared with flat panels, according to the company.

Because Solyndra's tube panels are lighter and allow wind to pass through them easily, there is less construction needed in terms of rooftop anchoring or shoring up a roof for significant weight-bearing. Because of this, according to Solyndra, its system is significantly cheaper to install than flat-panel systems

While solar power may not be considered the complete solution to U.S. energy woes, many commercial, industrial, and public facilities are looking at using solar photovoltaic systems as a supplement to their facilities' energy diets. In April, for example, the landmark Staples Center in Los Angeles announced it will be covering its 24,196-foot roof with photovoltaic modules.

Thin-film solar cells, particularly CIGS panels, have been attracting a lot of attention and funding. SoloPower, NanoSolar, and Ava Solar are thin-film solar companies that have announced funding in the hundreds of millions over the last few months. Even IBM is getting into CIGS solar cells through a partnership with a Japanese semiconductor equipment manufacturer.

Solyndra's funding comes from a mix of venture capital and private equity investments totaling $600 million to date. Solyndra investors include Virgin Green Fund, the Abu Dhabi-based Masdar, Rockport Capital Partners, and Argonaut Capital, according to a company spokeswoman.

The company has already been expanding its current plant, Venture Beat reported early Tuesday morning.

Solyndra counts Solar Power, the company contracted to do the Staples Center, and Phoenix Solar, a large solar power integration company in Europe, among its satisfied customers.

"By eliminating the need for roof-penetrating mounts and wind ballasts, PV arrays with Solyndra panels can be installed with one-third the labor, in one-third of the time, at one-half the cost. For commercial rooftops, PV module installation time can now be measured in days, not weeks. For flat commercial rooftops this is game-changing technology," Manfred Bachler, chief technical officer at Phoenix Solar, said in a statement.