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Thin-film outfit Global Solar touts efficiency, seeks expansion funds

Battling for cell efficiency and cheapest cost-per-watt, CIGS solar cell manufacturers are ramping up production.

The race is on to make most the cost-effective solar panel, and little-known Global Solar Energy says its flexible, thin-film cells have got the lead.

Company president and CEO Mike Gering told investors at the recent Piper Jaffray's Clean Technology and Renewables Conference that the company is trying to raise $100 million in private equity to finance construction of two new plants--one in Tucson, Ariz., and one in Berlin.

A flexible, thin-film solar cell from Tuscon, Ariz.-based Global Solar Energy. Global Solar Energy

The company is one of several developing thin-film solar cells made from the combination of materials copper indium gallium and diselenide (CIGS).

CIGS, one alternative to the dominant silicon solar cell, is fast becoming a substantial piece of the fast-growing solar business. Solar industry research firm Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Development estimates that thin film technology could represent 20-30 percent of solar cell production by 2010.

Nanosolar, a well financed start-up from Silicon Valley, started shipping its CIGS solar cells late last year and they will be used in a solar power park in Germany.

Nanosolar and Solyndra, another CIGS challenger, are said to be looking to raise significant amounts of money as well at very high valuations, according to rumors. One of the largest venture investments last year was another CIGS producer, Heliovolt.

"It used to be that CIGS technology was the next hope for thin-film PV (photovoltaics), but that point has been reached by Global Solar," Gering said, adding that others will reach that point.

Gering discounted the progress of his competitors. That's not surprising, given that he is trying to raise money, but the company has been manufacturing for a few years already and all of its production for 2008 is already sold.

Until now, the company has sold its cells for use in portable, flexible solar chargers for military use or to charge consumer electronics.

But he said a bigger growth opportunity is in solar panels and building-integrated PV, where cells are baked into roofs or siding. To expand, it needs more capital to build a 40-megawatt plant in Tucson and a 35-megawatt plant in Berlin, Gering said.

In addition, Global Solar claims to hold the CIGS efficiency crown for converting light to electricity.

The company's products can now convert 10 percent of sunlight to electricity and the company claims it will get to 13 or 14 percent.

For comparison, the most efficient silicon solar cells are in the 20 percent range.

Meanwhile, Nanosolar CEO Martin Roscheisen disclosed that his company's cells operate in the "9 to 10 percent range."

He, too, spoke at the Piper Jaffray conference, where he said that the company expects it can reach 15 percent efficiency ultimately.

"Our entire strategy is not based on delivering the most efficient panels. It's to deliver the most cost-efficient panels," he said.

Roscheisen said the installed cost of the panels at the planned East German plant will be about $3 per watt.

He added that the company expects it can make the entire system cost lower than stock market high-flier First Solar, which is considered the most cost-effective on the market today.