Tag Archives: Abound Solar

Cutting Through the Noise on Abound’s Bankruptcy

Late last month, once-promising cadmium telluride (CdTe) start-up Abound Solar filed for bankruptcy. We pegged the company as one of five solar suppliers that would struggle in 2012 (Client registration required). Abound’s $400 million U.S. Department of Energy loan guarantee (of which it only used $70 million) to expand and build a 640 MW facility in Indiana has the wheels of political media turning – in most cases, likening the failed company to Solyndra. Such comparisons, in large part, are erroneous.

Solyndra was likely plagued by poor manufacturing yields (Client registration required), but more so by high costs that were exaggerated when polysilicon costs crashed, making it wildly uncompetitive on price. In mid-2011, the company’s manufacturing costs were between $3/W and $4/W while the x-Si market was barreling towards $1/W.

Abound’s problem was not manufacturing costs. The company claimed 97% to 99% electrical/mechanical process yields, and had begun expansion for 640 MW of capacity – surely enough scale to bring costs down significantly. Fellow CdTe supplier First Solar, though struggling today, is the cost leader in the solar industry. We’ve heard that Abound’s biggest problem was module performance. As of our last profile, the company was barely breaking the 10% efficiency barrier, whereas competitor First Solar documented average module efficiencies more than 12.5% in its Q1 2012 earnings call. Further, performance issues in CdTe are likely a function of copper present in back contact pastes, which diffuses across the CdTe/CdS junction and negatively affects performance (for more on this issue, see the Lux Research report “Key Issues and Innovations in Photovoltaic Metallization. Client registration required.).

Solyndra failed on cost and Abound on performance – and attributing either to Chinese manufacturing alone is incorrect. What they have in common is that both received loan guarantees from the U.S. government, and so both will remain political punching bags well into the 2012 presidential election – Solyndra more so, as it received more funding and has questions surrounding its political connections; whereas Abound’s expansion was also supported by the Republican governor of Indiana at the time. What should be more of a concern for the solar industry is that the shakeout isn’t over.

New encapsulants for thin-film solar poised to hit the market

Just a few weeks after DuPont announced a new product for its ionomer-based encapsulant line, we caught wind that Cytec is developing its encapsulant targeted at the thin-film market. The company plans to leverage its experience in UV-cured materials used in laminated glass applications, and ultimately offer a solution that can be cured in a matter of seconds. Incumbent materials like ethelene vinyl acetate (EVA) and polyvinyl butyral (PVB) take at least ten minutes to laminate.

In addition to faster cure times, both companies claim a key advantage of their products will be a lower moisture vapor transmission (MVT) rate, which helps protect the sensitive semiconductor layers. Having a low MVT rate is especially important for thin-film modules that replace glass with polymer backsheets and frontsheets, since it helps cope with the lower moisture barrier properties of those materials. However, successful solutions must be able to show a clear advantage over PVB for thin-film applications, primarily in raw materials cost. Since most module manufacturers already have autoclave furnaces, it is unclear how much they value improvements in cycle time.

A growing threat for such encapsulant technologies, however, is a practice by module manufacturers to sandwich products in glass and apply a powerful edge sealant, which provides the desired moisture-barrier. Abound Solar is already using such a “filler-free” encapsulation method; and Sharp, one of the world’s largest thin-film silicon module manufacturers, recently announced that it too will pursue frameless glass-glass modules protected by an edge sealant. First Solar, also using a glass-glass construction, uses EVA material for mechanical stability and an edge sealant to slow water and oxygen penetration.

Clients should watch closely over the coming years to see whether or not module manufacturers increasingly value the adhesion and strength of encapsulants over their moisture barrier properties. In our upcoming Solar Components State of the Market Report, we will tackle this topic among other challenges being faced by materials suppliers.

Views from the Summit

Amidst an uncertain economic climate, top corporate executives, entrepreneurs, investors, and academic luminaries traveled to Boston last month to share the ideas, insights and innovations that helped establish them as today’s business and technology leaders.

The event was the fifth annual Lux Executive Summit, where leading innovators – from IBM to Mitsui to DSM – meet, discuss and learn about the technologies that will drive growth and profits for years to come. This week, Lux Populi highlights some of the insights and observations from the Lux Executive Summit by analysts from each of Lux Research’s Intelligence services.

Biosciences: Pulp/paper producers protest penetration into biofuels
Amidst a lively debate about ethanol’s potential to displace petroleum in the U.S., Samhitha Udupa pointed out to Robert Gelman, a researcher at Ashland, that several of the technology developers that Lux has briefed were struggling with pretreatment processes to breakdown and separate components of lignocellulosic biomass (comprising lignin, hemicellulose, and cellulose). Pretreatment is widely recognized as the most expensive step in cellulosic fermentation, and enzyme giants like Novozymes spent many years designing cheaper enzymes. Interestingly, Gelman vehemently asserted that firms, like Ashland, with experience in pulp and paper have long been experts at separating components of wood, an abundant lignocellulosic feedstock.

So why aren’t more pulp and paper players stepping up to take advantage of a huge unmet need in a soon-to-be high-volume industry?

According to Robert, he had the same thought years ago, and pursued the idea with “many” (emphatically) of his higher-ups, but was met with great skepticism. He asserted that pulp and paper producers are “dinosaurs more interested in reliving ‘Blazing Saddles’ than in exploring adjacent applications for their valuable technologies.” While the cellulosic ethanol industry continues reinventing the wheel – or parts of the wheel – in an effort to bring down costs, pulp and paper producers continue to… produce paper and pulp.

* * *

Green Buildings: Dow says many buildings are actually getting less efficient
Mike Kontranowski, Strategic Marketing Manager of Dow Building Solution’ Thermax brand of rigid insulating board, presented a sobering analysis of the direction of building efficiency during the Summit. Although buildings of all types have become more energy efficient on a per square foot basis for the past 50 years, many buildings constructed over the past decade have bucked the trend and have begun regressing on energy efficiency. This reversal comes despite newfound interest in “green building” among governments, occupants, and the building owners themselves, and despite the plethora of insulation, window, equipment, and other devices that yield far greater efficiencies. More surprisingly, many of the buildings are LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certified, because energy efficiency is only one of many metrics that accrue points needed for certification.

The proximate cause of the backslide in efficiency is a switch to less expensive aluminum wall studs in place of wood or block in recent years. Because aluminum is such a good conductor of heat, walls that are otherwise well-insulated – with insulation batts installed between the studs – see an overall insulating R-value of the wall drop in half, from 11 or more to 5. Thermal images of walls are particularly poignant, showing relatively small amounts of heat escaping from between the studs, while the studs themselves were lit up like Christmas trees.

Fortunately solutions exist even for this problem, including new insulating sheathing technologies from Dow and Owens Corning that cover the exterior of the studs. In addition, aerogel companies, such as Aspen Aerogels and American Aerogel, are developing insulating tapes designed specifically to envelop the studs themselves and lend substantial insulating value. Although, adoption of these technologies isn’t likely to surge in the near term, expect renewed regulatory efforts and impending financial programs like the PACE bonds may accelerate their roll-out further on (see the May 3, 2010 LRGJ – client registration required), and may reverse the unfortunate regression in thermal insulation in modern structures. 

* * *

Nanomaterials: Best practices for building a business around nanotechnology
During a panel discussion at the Summit, CTO Seth Coe-Sullivan of QD Vision, President Donald Cho of Finetex EnE, and President Adrian Burden of Bilcare Technologies discussed best practices for building a business around nanotechnology. Common tips included:

  • Secure funding early
  • Protect intellectual property
  • Integrate environmental, health, and safety (EHS) plans with business strategy
  • Develop a strong team top-to-bottom
  • Developing nanointermediates instead of just nanomaterials, and
  • Focus on a small number of target markets

While the trio hit most of the best practices that we’ve touted before, one of the most critical steps for a start-up is forming partnerships early with large corporations (see “Open Innovation and Its Discontents: Solving the Emerging Technology Funding Problem”). With these tips in mind, clients should check each box when engaging start-ups and benchmark the potentials against strong players like QD Vision, Bilcare, and Finetex.

With regard to Finetex, its VP Donald Cho told Lux analyst Jurron Bradley that it supplies nanofiber filters to GE for its turbines to filter the incoming air. While gas turbines may not represent a large opportunity for filter companies, the partnership is a strong vote of confidence for the product and pushes Finetex further in front of its competition. Finetex’s revenues from nanofiber sales are still a modest $1.5 million, but it sports an extensive partner and customer list, which speaks well for its future. Clients looking for a nanofiber supplier, especially for textile and filtration applications, should engage Finetex, but those considering running their own production lines should look to Elmarco for equipment.

* * *

Power: Toyota, Compact Power, and BYD offer contrasting views on the future of Li-ion
Three panel speakers in energy storage provided three very different visions for the future of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries and electric vehicles. The panel included Bill Reinert, National Manager for Toyota Motor Sales’ Advanced Technology Group, Prabhakar Patil, CEO of Compact Power (a subsidiary of LG Chem, and battery supplier for the Chevy Volt), and Micheal Austin, VP of BYD America.

Reinert, the most conservative of the three, lamented that at today’s Li-ion battery prices, even a plug-in hybrid vehicle (PHEV) with as little as a 10-mile all-electric range (AER) is still too expensive. While Patil agreed that Li-ion batteries were very expensive today, he felt that costs would drop by a factor of two to four in the next five years to 10 years. Austin, by far the most bullish of the three, claimed that BYD is already producing Li-ion batteries at $500/kWh, as well as the electric vehicles (both all-electric vehicles – EVs – and PHEVs) and grid-storage systems that use them. 

Our view aligns most with that of Toyota’s Reinert. Our cost estimates for automotive Li-ion packs to the automaker range between $633/kWh and $686/kWh on the pack level, which is too expensive for any PHEV to compete with a NiMH-powered standard hybrid without serious subsidies (see the Lux Research report “Looking Inside Li-ion Batteries for Cost Reduction“). While we agree with the low end of Patil’s estimates – namely the claim that large-format Li-ion prices will drop by a factor of two over the next decade – we don’t see them dropping by a factor of four in the foreseeable future, due to high materials costs.

However, BYD may have found a solution to the problem of high costs. Austin told us that the keys to BYD’s ultra-low battery prices are 1) BYD’s iron-phosphate cells contain less lithium – an expensive cell material – than other lithium iron phosphate (LFP) cells made by the likes of A123 Systems or K2 Energy and 2) BYD’s pack is a hybrid of energy- and power-cell chemistries, allowing for rapid charging (50% SOC in 10 minutes) while reducing the total cost of the system. Moreover, in June 2010, the Chinese government announced a trial plan in five cities that will pay subsidies of up to 60,000 yuan (roughly $8,800) per electric vehicle directly to the automakers. This allows consumers to buy BYD F3DM PHEVs (with a 24 kWh pack) at roughly $10,000 per vehicle, while BYD’s E6 EV (with a 65 kWh pack) is now priced for U.S. sales at $35,000 – the Chinese consumer price is yet to be set.  With these new lowered prices, BYD expects the sales of these vehicles to be very strong.

* * *

Solar: Summit panelists dish on solar industry outlook
Conference invitees attending the Summit’s solar track caught perspective from the industry’s leading lights at two separate panel discussions. First up was the “Top Dogs” panel, wherein Satcon CEO Steve Rhoads and Enphase Energy Founder Raghu Belur discussed the relative merits of centralized inverters versus panel-level microinverters. In addition, Yingli Solar Managing Director Rob Petrina discussed Yingli’s market entry strategy for the U.S.

Overall, all three were incredibly positive about the prospects for the U.S. market in 2010 and 2011 as it begins to soak up demand from Germany. Further, Rhoads and Petrina stressed that the Chinese market is not to be overlooked, especially given the quick pace at which plants can be installed. For example, Satcon cited a total development, engineering and construction time of only a few months for its 38 MW of projects with GCL in China, compared to the 12 to 36 months more typical of U.S. installations   

Later that day, Craig Cornelius, Managing Director at Hudson Clean Energy Partners, moderated a panel of “Solar’s Emerging Leaders.” The panel included Dave Pearce, CEO of CIGS start-up NuvoSun; Kurt Barth, founder of CdTe up-and-comer Abound Solar; and Cynthia Christensen, Director of Marketing for Stirling Energy Systems (SES), a developer of a unique variation on solar thermal. The three discussed some of the challenges of overcoming the “bankability” and “warrantability” concerns for new technologies. They suggested the use of third-party insurers and funding initial installations off the company’s own balance sheet were generally accepted best practices in the market downturn. Indeed, SES noted how it spun off a separate project development subsidiary, funded by the same investors, to allow it to focus on technology developments. Clients should watch Abound and SES carefully for their first installations this year, while NuvoSun’s progress with its partner Dow Chemical will determine that company’s future success.

* * *

Water: Top dogs and rising stars discuss opportunities and challenges in the hydrocosm
Two separate panel discussions at the Summit generated insightful commentary on topics ranging from regulation in the hydrocosm, the need for innovation in the field, new market growth opportunities, and the impact of the current low cost of water.

The first panel provided perspective from “top dogs” representing every part of the membrane water treatment system, beginning with David Moll from Dow Water & Process Solutions (the membrane), Bill Musiak from Norit X-Flow North America (the modules), and Jeff Fulgham from GE Water Process & Technologies (system development and other facets).

The panel discussed markets for residential treatment systems, food and beverage processing, wastewater, and two areas of particular excitement: the produced water market and wastewater reuse, all of which we agree are significant growth areas.

We were glad to see the panel unanimously confirm the importance of the wastewater treatment market, which we recently covered in Technologies Turn Waste into Profit (client registration required). The panel also shared our interest in ultrafiltration membranes and the produced water market. Lux Research discussed membranes in a recent report Filtering Out Growth Prospects in the $1.5 Billion Membrane Market (client registration required), and will discuss specifics of the produced water market in an upcoming Water State of the Market Report (SMR) later this year.

The Summit also brought together “rising stars” in the water market, namely Amir Peleg from TakaDu Ltd, Emily Landsburg from Blackgold Biofuels, G.G. Pique from Energy Recovery Inc. (ERI), and Marc Bracken from Echologics Engineering Inc.

The current low cost of water was of particular focus for panelists who discussed how to grow a business given this fundamental truth in the water market. The low cost of water effectively reduces the drive for innovation and new products, since customers are not motivated to alter current water treatments and use patterns.

G.G. and Amir both noted that there is a need for national water policy to push the agenda of innovation, among other benefits. Marc from Echologics noted that repairing the aging water infrastructure is often a pain point for customers because, irrespective of the cost of water, it must still be transported efficiently. Emily noted that Blackgold Biofuels’ business actually helps water utilities stretch their revenue by providing a cash stream from the waste buildup in the pipe infrastructure. In addition to the cost/revenue discussion, the panelists emphasized the need to collaborate, and for solutions that form a “treatment train” instead of claiming to be silver bullet.