In May—as a trade war raged between Chinese solar panel manufacturers and exporters and their counterparts in the U.S. and the European Union concerning the world’s plummeting crystalline silicone photovoltaic module prices—a 28.8-MW thin-film copper indium gallium (di)selenide (CIGS or CIS) solar power plant came online. Developers Solar Frontier, the world’s largest manufacturer of CIS thin-film modules, and solar system integrator Belectric are billing the facility in Brandenburg, Germany, as the “world’s largest” CIS thin-film solar plant.

The plant features about 205,000 CIS thin-film modules that were produced at Solar Frontier’s gigawatt-scale Kunitomi plant in Miyazaki, Japan (Figure 5). CommerzReal was the investor, and financing was supplied by HypoVereinsbank/UniCredit. “This project not only shows the confidence BELECTRIC has in the performance and reliability of our CIS modules, but also the trust that financial institutions like HypoVereinsbank and CommerzReal are placing in our technology,” said Wolfgang Lange, managing director, Solar Frontier Europe.

5. A thin ray of sunshine. In the face of plummeting costs for rival technology crystalline silicone photovoltaic modules, a 28.8-MW thin-film copper indium gallium (di)selenide solar power plant came online this May in Brandenburg, Germany. Courtesy: Solar Frontier

Thin-film manufacturers are facing cut-throat competition from crystalline silicone photovoltaic makers, and several are suffering a Solyndra-like fate. When the price of polysilicon, the raw material in conventional panels, peaked at $475 a kilogram in 2008, investments soared in thin-film solar products. Polysilicon average spot prices had fallen to $23.20 a kilogram in June, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. According to an April GTM Research report, thin-film solar technologies accounted for just 11% of global solar panel production in 2011, falling from 18% in 2009. The market research firm forecasts thin-film solar panel sales will drop substantially, to $2.9 billion in 2012 from $4.43 billion in 2011.

In March, German CIS vendor Odersun closed shop under financial strain. Then in April, First Solar, one of the world’s largest thin-film solar firms, said it would shutter its German factory, idle part of its Malaysian factory, and lay off 30% of its workforce.

The latest thin-film casualty is Konarka Technologies, the brainchild of Nobel laureate Dr. Alan Heeger, who won the prize for his work on conductive polymers. The Lowell, Mass.–based firm filed for bankruptcy in June, citing a failure to obtain additional financing.

—Sonal Patel is POWER’s senior writer.