CIGS Thin Film Solar Cells Poised to Gain PV Market Share

A hope has long existed that photovoltaic cells produced by thin film deposition techniques might economically outperform PV cells based on bulk crystalline silicon which is an energy and capital intensive commodity. However, bulk crystalline silicon cells have continued to improve in cost and performance and have so far managed to keep far in front of the thin film pack in terms of production volumes (i.e. Crystalline silicon cells still constitute 97% manufacturing volumes). It is true that the thin film PV company First Solar which manufacture cadmium telluride PV cells was the first company to break the $1/watt cost barrier for PV cells. Cadmium telluride cells are the second most used PV technology behind crystalline silicon, having capture 5% of the total market. However, the supply of tellurium, which is an extremely rare element, will probably limit the total market share of CdTe cells. Furthermore the extremely toxic nature of cadmium is keeping CdTe cells out of the rooftop and building integrated PV (BIPV) markets.

CIGS (Copper, Indium, Gallium, Selenide) thin film solar cells have been under intensive development for several decades as a potential low cost, high performance rival to crystalline silicon PV, but have so far failed to deliver a cost effective product. A recent article in published on implies that this history of failure may be coming to and end. The article claims that CIGS cells have recently achieved manufacturing costs and performance efficiencies comparable to the Silicon PV and that a reasonable road map for near term cost reduction by another 25% to 40% exists. CIGS PV cells utilize the relatively rare element Indium, but this white paper claims that projected supplies of Indium can support low cost manufacturing at a level of 150GW per year. Since the total global manufacturing capacity in 2015 was about 65GW this is volume is quite significant. Nevertheless it is probably not sufficient to allow CIGS to surpass silicon PV volumes in the long term term. CIGS cells could conceivable dominate the developing BIPV market where its use of flexible substrates and its black matte appearance may give it distinct advantages over crystalline silicon other than efficiency and cost.