September 9, 2009, 11:44 am

$4.1 Billion in Orders for Thin-Film Solar

Nanosolar Nanosolar, a California start-up, says it has secured $4.1 billion in orders for its printable photovoltaic cells.

Since its founding in 2002, Nanosolar has raised a lot of money – half a billion dollars to date – and made a lot of noise about upending the solar industry, but the Silicon Valley start-up has been a bit vague on specifics about why it’s the next big green thing.

On Wednesday, Nanosolar pulled back the curtain on its thin-film photovoltaic cell technology — which it claims is more efficient and less expensive than that of industry leader First Solar — and announced that it has secured $4.1 billion in orders for its solar panels.

Martin Roscheisen, Nanosolar’s chief executive, said customers included solar power plant developers like NextLight, AES Solar and Beck Energy of Germany.

The typical Nanosolar farm will be between 2 and 20 megawatts in size, Mr. Roscheisen said in an e-mail message from Germany, where he was attending the opening of Nanosolar’s new factory near Berlin. “This is a sweet spot in terms of ease of permitting and distributed deployment without having to tax the transmission infrastructure.”

Nanosolar, based in San Jose, Calif., has developed a solar cell made from copper indium gallium (di)selenide. The semiconducting materials and nanoparticles are contained within a proprietary ink that makes it possible to print flexible solar cells on rolls of cheap aluminum foil.

(For those interested in the nitty-gritty details of Nansolar’s technology and production process, the company’s white paper provides is a good place to start.)

The company said on Wednesday that the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory had verified that its cells achieved 16.4 percent efficiency – the highest recorded for a printed photovoltaic cell – and its solar panels have efficiency greater than 11 percent.

According to Nanosolar, its low-cost production and the design of its Nanosolar Utility Panel will allow developers to build more efficient and less expensive solar farms. “Our cost is less than First Solar’s, which has been the lowest in the industry,” said Mr. Roscheisen. “Fundamentally, our cells are a piece of aluminum foil with a micron thick of a copper-based semiconductor on top — all deposited using inexpensive printing processes.”

Nanosolar, however, faces an uphill battle catching up with First Solar, which on Tuesday signed an agreement with Chinese government officials to build a 2,000-megawatt photovoltaic power plant in Mongolia and has contracts to supply more than 1,100 megawatts of electricity to utilities in California.

First Solar, based in Tempe, Ariz., expects to have a manufacturing capacity of more than 1,189 megawatts by the end of the year.

Nanosolar, meanwhile, says its German factory can produce 640 megawatts’ worth of panels if it operates around the clock. The company’s San Jose plant currently is manufacturing one million solar cells a month while it ramps up production. Mr. Roscheisen said that while Nanosolar is focusing on making solar panels for power plants, a residential product “is in the pipeline.”