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Solar expert HelioVolt gets $77 million

The specialist in CIGS solar cells plans to use the money to build factories for producing the panels.

Despite recent hiccups, the CIGS train rolls on.

HelioVolt, which specializes in copper-indium-germanium-selenide (CIGS) solar cells, has raised $77 million in a second round of financing, some of which comes from a fund out of the oil-rich sultanate of Abu Dhabi.

The money will be used to build factories. HelioVolt hopes to start limited production in the middle of next year and ramp to full production by the first quarter of 2009, CEO B.J. Stanbery said in an interview.

The first factory will be capable of producing 20 megawatts worth of solar panels a year and bigger factories will follow, he said. The initial factory will cost less than $77 million.

"We hope to determine the exact location (of the first factory) by the end of the month," he said.

CIGS solar cells are not as efficient as crystalline silicon solar cells, the dominant type of cell on the market. HelioVolt's first cells will likely have an efficiency rating of 10 percent to 12 percent, meaning that they can convert 10 percent to 12 percent of the sunlight that strikes them into electricity. Commercially available silicon solar cells already do .

CIGS cells, though, will be cheaper, say proponents. HelioVolt will make them by printing the active CIGS material onto glass sheets and thermally bonding it. By contrast, silicon solar cells are made with the same sort of processes needed to make flat-screen TVs.

"The cost is dominated by what you put it on, and there are not many cheaper things than glass," he said. Eventually, CIGS will get printed on foils or directly into things like roofing tiles.

In all, venture capitalists have poured more than $320 million into five CIGS companies in the last few years--, Miasole, Solopower, Solyndra and HelioVolt.

The catch? CIGS cells are difficult to manufacture and many companies have had to delay products. HelioVolt isn't an exception here. In April 2006, the plan was to start production by the end of that year.

As a result, some VCs are sour on the concept. "I've not been a big CIGS fan. Very exciting, but very, very hard nut to crack," wrote one in an e-mail conversation earlier this week about solar technologies in general.

Some competitors have had to delay products because of overconfidence, argued Stanbery. "People think this is a conventional semiconductor. It's not," he said. "CIGS is a very unusual material."

Stanbery does not come from Silicon Valley. He has worked in thin-film solar and CIGS for decades.

Investors in the second round include New Energy Associates, which invested in the past, and new investor Masdar Clean Tech Fund, a clean tech venture group funded by Abu Dhabi, the Consensus Business Group and Credit Suisse. The sultanate (part of the United Arab Emirates created the $250 million fund as a way to diversify its economy.

Other Masdar investments include AgiLight, a Texas-based maker of light-emitting diodes.

MIT is helping Masdar build a graduate school dedicated to alternative energies that is set to start admitting students in 2009. Nearby Qatar, similarly, has already persuaded nationally ranked U.S. universities to build engineering schools and medical schools in the country.