In her story on the cancelled IPO, Camille Ricketts of VentureBeat notes this is in the context of other declines in the thin-film market, including Applied Materials discontinuing its SunFab thin-film integrated equipment line.
Buried near the bottom of her story is the heart of the matter:
Thin-film cells are generally less efficient than their crystalline silicon peers. Their main saving grace — which motivated a lot of investment in the market two years ago — is that they use less silicon. Back when the material was expensive, this made thin-film a compelling proposition. But silicon prices have since dropped, allowing crystalline silicon panels and the companies who specialize in them, namely SunPower, to remain on top.This raises the question: if crystalline silicon prices continue to fall — as they have for decades — why would we think that thin film companies have any sort of future?
Low efficiency means greater spending per kWh on balance of system — including installation labor and permitting costs that seem more stubbornly resistant to experience curve efficiencies. There’s also the real estate question — due to the space limitations of a rooftop environment, behind-the-meter applications often have trouble generating enough power to meet local demand as it is.
Yes, solar remains an industry of a thousand niches. Flexible thin-film substrates will have a future in building-integrated photovoltaic and other niche applications where it is competing with no PV — rather than silicon PV.
Still, we’ve known that a shakeout is coming in PV, due not only to the high level of investment in solar startups but also the importance of scale economies to overcome increasing cost pressures. The shakeout is going to be brutal to makers of low-efficiency components and modules.