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Thin-film solar startup Stion heads to Korea

In the largest funding for solar PV this year, Stion gets $130 million to make thin-film solar panels the company claims are quickly improving in efficiency.

Residential solar panels with black thin-film solar cells. Stion

Solar startup Stion has found deep pockets in Asia.

The Silicon Valley-based company today said it has raised $130 million from Korea-based thin-film solar equipment maker Avaco, Korean private-equity funds, and venture capital firms. Last year, Stion took a $50 million investment from Taiwan Semiconductor as part of a larger series D round.

With today's funding, Avaco and Stion will collaborate to develop next-generation thin-film solar equipment designed to boost cell efficiency and factory output. It will also create a subsidiary in Korea and build a factory to serve Asian markets.

Stion is one of many solar companies founded over the last 10 years to develop alternatives to traditional silicon solar cells. It has a process to make cells from a combination of copper, indium, gallium, and sulfur-selenide (CIGSS) which have been tested at 14.1 percent efficiency by the National Renewable Energy Laboratories. In an interview last year, CEO Chet Farris said Stion uses many different production techniques to increase efficiency and keep costs low.

The efficiency of converting sunlight to electricity is lower on thin-film cells than silicon, but advocates say that thin-film technology and manufacturing is progressing faster. In the solar market overall, prices have dropped more than 50 percent in the past two years, which has led to many solar manufacturers going out of business.

Getting capital to manufacture thin-film technologies, which helps work out technical issues and reduces costs, has been a challenge for many U.S.-based companies. Now-infamous Solyndra used a $535 million loan guarantee to build a factory in California but then went bankrupt and shut down.

Lured by a $75 million state loan, Stion moved to Mississippi to build a factory worth more than $100 million in investment. In September, it had the grand opening for the factory in Hattiesburg which will produce at a rate of 100 megawatts' worth of solar in the first phase.

Today's $130 million investment in Stion to expand in Asia is the largest solar-photovoltaic funding this year, according to Greentech Media.