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HelioVolt selects Texas for its first CIGS plant

You've heard about them for years, but CIGS solar cells are finally coming to market.

HelioVolt, which plans on producing thin film solar panels made from copper indium gallium and selenide (CIGS), will build a 20-megawatt factory in Austin, Texas, that will start popping out panels in 2008.

The factory will employ about 150 people. The company then hopes to move into mass manufacturing by the first quarter of 2009 as well as expand production capacity.

CIGS solar panels aren't as efficient at converting sunlight into electricity as silicon solar panels, but advocates say that they cost far less to produce. CIGS solar panels can also be placed on glass or polymer sheets. Ideally, a plastic sheet coated with CIGS solar cells could cover the roof of a giant retail outlet and provide the building with a huge percentage of its electricity.

Getting CIGS into mass production, however, has taken some work. HelioVolt, Miasole, and DayStar Technologies have all experienced delays. NanoSolar, in Silicon Valley, just began producing solar cells out of its new factory.

Although each of the CIGS companies will make the same basic product, they each employ a different manufacturing process. He who comes up with a cheap, reliable way to produce finicky CIGS solar cells will be the winner, say analysts. First Solar, which makes cadmium telluride thin film solar cells, can attribute a lot of its success to its manufacturing process, which it has honed for the last few decades.

Earlier this year, HelioVolt raised $101 million. Investors include New Enterprise Associates and the Masdar Clean Tech Fund, an investment group formed by the government of Abu Dhabi.

Venture capitalists have poured more than $344 million into five CIGS companies in the last few years--Nanosolar, Miasole, Solopower, Solyndra, and HelioVolt.