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By Ucilia Wang

Back in March, Ascent Solar (NASDAQ:ASTI) announced that it had begun regular production of its copper-indium-gallium-selenide panels on a 1.5-megawatt pilot line.

The Littleton, Colo.-based company has since submitted panels from the factory to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) for testing. NREL has confirmed that the panels could achieve 10.4 percent efficiency – that is, they could convert 10.4 percent of the sunlight that hits them into electricity, Ascent Solar said Wednesday.

Unlike some other CIGS companies, Ascent Solar is depositing CIGS on plastic instead of glass, an approach that reduces manufacturing costs and makes the panels flexible for building-integrated projects, the company said. The company has declined to disclose production costs.

There is no shortage of companies developing CIGS panels, but many of them remain in pre-commercial stages. Better-known CIGS startups in the United States include Nanosolar and Miasole, both in the Silicon Valley.

Fremont, Calif.-based Solyndra also produces CIGS panels, and has garnered a lot of spotlight for the amount of contracts (more than $2 billion) it has signed with various distributors, installers and project developers in Europe and the United States.

Being able to produce panels that have at least 10 percent efficiency is considered critical for winning customers. The vast majority of solar panels on the market today have efficiencies that fall between 10 percent and 20 percent. These numbers refer to the average efficiencies of the panels.

Although Ascent Solar is able to achieve 10.4 percent efficiency with its panels, the figure refers to the best result from the testing, not average efficiency.

The average efficiency of the panels from the company's 1.5-megawatt line hovers around 8 percent to 9 percent, said Brian Blackman, a spokesman for Ascent Solar.

The company plans to open a 30-megawatt factory in Thornton, Colo., and begin production there during the first quarter of 2010.