Oy, Another Solar Manufacturer On The Rocks

MiaSole is the latest solar manufacturer to crash on the shoals of the sector’s supply-demand imbalance, announcing this week that it will “reorganize manufacturing and operations.”

Media reports put the immediate toll on the Santa Clara, Calif., company’s workforce at 200.

MiaSole reorganization

image via MiaSole

The good news here is that, as the company pointedly noted in its release, “MiaSole received no government funding. The company had access to tax credits but never used them.”

So at least we’re not headed toward another Solyndra, the very-much government-backed company that, like MiaSole, did CIGS thin-film solar, albeit in a novel fashion, and came to an unfortunate end, doing considerable damage to the clean-energy movement in the process.

No, MiaSole relied on private money, and has actually seemed to have little trouble finding the green; it pulled in a cool half-billion in venture funding. As recently as March, the company announced $55 million in new investment, even as it said it was seeking a buyer or partners to expand production and sales.

Why the investor excitement in the company? Well, for one thing, MiaSole achieved leading efficiencies in solar cells made using a semiconductor compound made from copper, iridium, gallium and selenium.

In late 2010, the company was a bearer of happy news, heralding a jump from 14.3 to 15.7 percent in solar cell efficiency, an achievement that drew plaudits from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which called it “a very exciting result.” This year, the company reached a record 15.5 percent with a flexible solar cell.

MiaSole uses – we won’t say “used,” yet, since it’s still very much fighting to make it – a manufacturing process that deposits CIGS on a flexible stainless steel substrate and produces all of the layers required for its solar cell in a single continuous process. It uses a ”sputtering process” in every step of the coating, which, according to the company, reduces manufacturing time and the overall cost of production.

Obviously, this process has only taken the company so far.

“MiaSolé has advanced solar technology by developing the highest efficiency, lowest-cost CIGS modules and executing globally,” John Carrington, the CEO, said in a statement. “However, in the near term we need to conserve costs to enable a strategic partnership. The company is looking forward to aligning with a partner and collectively executing on our technology roadmap, flexible product launch and additional capacity to fulfill our 1GW+ commercial pipeline. I am confident based on current discussions we will finalize a partnership within the next 60-90 days.”

SoloPower, GE, colorado plant, thin-film

image via SoloPower

While MiaSolé wasn’t backed by the government, it’s struggles might send a troubling signal about the fate of another CIGS company that did – SoloPower. It got a $197 million loan guarantee to build a plant in Portland, Ore., that’s nearing completion. SoloPower attracted excitement with a manufacturing process described by the U.S. Department of Energy as “innovative” and yielding “low-cost, high efficiency copper, indium, gallium and (di) selenide (‘CIGS’) -based photovoltaic cells.”

SoloPower, however, is banking on more than a low-cost manufacturing process. In a recent interview with EarthTechling, CEO Tim Harris also talked up the company’s “integrated installation system optimized for commercial rooftops” that aren’t appropriate for heavy loads.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Green Hi Fi Blogger

    It’s a little premature to say they are “on the rocks” IMO. A bit misleading for a headline.