South Africa has more of a history with thin film than you would expect for a country that has only recently begun to embrace solar.
Back in the early 2000s a team led by Professor Vivian Alberts, of the University of Johannesburg, was at the forefront of thin film research and development with a copper, indium, gallium, sulphur and selenium product just five microns thick.
By 2009, the technology was ready for commercialisation, with plans for a manufacturing plant in Western Cape. And by 2011, although the company selling the cells had been bought by Bosch, Alberts was reported to be once again eyeing South African manufacturing with a German partner.
This was just when thin film was starting to lose out to crystalline-silicon (c-Si) modules, of course. But in the ensuing scramble to grab cheap c-Si, South Africa did not forget thin film altogether.
South African PV reseller Sinetech, for example, now proudly parades Solar Frontier’s thin-film range on its web site.
And in May of this year, First Solar was reported to be gearing up for several submissions in the third bid window of South Africa’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP), which closes on August 19.
Regional director Johan Cilliers, whose South African power credentials include a stint at the state utility Eskom, said the company had up to 1GW of projects in the pipeline, although he did not disclose the project details.
Perhaps surprisingly, Solar Frontier appears to be taking a more considered approach to business in the country. “Although Solar Frontier is active in South Africa it is not really a top priority market for them at this stage,” says a source close to the company.
Nevertheless there is clearly an important market opportunity. “There are major contracts being signed for windows one and two of the REIPPPP, and solar PV forms a large part of this,” says an energy industry insider in South Africa.
“There is no doubt that major orders are going to be placed by the developers of these solar PV farms. There are a lot of projects on the go. The PV panels are coming from all sorts of sources around the world.”
The prospect of increasing demand is even fuelling a modest home-grown PV manufacturing industry, with start-ups such as Artsolar of New Germany, Pinetown, which produces c-Si.
One fledgling business, Blacklite, is even hoping to pick up where Alberts left off and develop thin film manufacturing facilities in the country.
Last August, managing director Ajay Lalu told PV Insider there were three reasons for going down the thin-film route for manufacturing. “If you look at traditional PV,” he says, “we think it has reached maturity in terms of the technology, in terms of efficiency.
“Secondly, the cost of establishing a production facility for crystalline is significantly higher and you have to do it on a far bigger scale to get the economies of scale required.
“The third reason is that if you look at things like temperature coefficient, thin film is far better suited to the climatic conditions that you get in Africa as a whole.”
As of last year Blacklite was planning a small pilot in South Africa and was bidding for a 300MW project in east Africa, but Lalu, who expects significant production to start from around 2015, admits the technology has yet to make much of an impression.
“As a relatively new market, people are only just beginning to understand PV technology now, so we have a massive role to play in terms of educating the market on the benefits of thin film,” he says.
Nevertheless, developers such as Aurora Power Solutions of Cape Town are said to be interested in the technology and the relative ease with which thin film manufacturing centres could be set up might help companies wishing to comply with local content requirements.
It all seems to add up to a cautiously optimistic outlook for thin film in South Africa.
Matt Feinstein, analyst at Lux Research, says: “I think we will see a growing amount of developement there, but it really hinges on where First Solar and Solar Frontier want to go.”
In terms of how thin film faces up to c-Si in the country, Feinstein considers: “Everybody is in there. Thin film will need more cost but has better performance than c-Si. That will play to its advantage compared to being in North Africa.”
Thin film companies, he adds: “Just have to go after it. First Solar is likely to go after a lot of these emerging markets.”
However, Chris Yelland, a South African energy reporter and analyst, points out that First Solar may not be able to rely on the kinds of export subsidies that have given it the edge in India. “In the end it will have to stand up on price,” he concludes.