Sharp’s Amorphous Silicon Thin-Film U.S. Business - An Update

Aug.23.09 | About: Sharp Corp. (SHCAY)

By Ucilia Wang

When Sharp (OTCPK:SHCAY) executives convened at Solar Power International in San Diego last October, they touted a recently completed $215 million factory for the company's second-generation amorphous silicon thin films in Japan and discussed shipping those panels to the U.S. market starting in August 2009.

So I checked in with Ron Kenedi, vice president of Sharp Solar Energy Solutions Group, to see how Sharp is doing with its thin-film business in the United States.

Kenedi said via emails that the panels are available for Sharp's distributors and installers for residential and small business customers. But Sharp is targeting projects for large businesses and utilities, and those projects are still under development, he said. He declined to divulge details about those projects.

Sharp has been selling its silicon panels via distributors and installers in the United States for years, of course. Its solar business started here in 2002, and it began making silicon panels from its factory in Tennessee in 2003.

But the company is making a big push for its new thin-film panels, which use less silicon and promise to be cheaper than the conventional silicon panels. Unlike its first-generation product, the second-generation thin films have not only a layer of amorphous silicon, but also another layer of microcrystalline silicon.

Sharp started shipping the new thin films to Europe last October, Kenedi said. The company began shipping the first-generation thin films to Europe in 2005.

Sharp's new thin films are 2.7 times larger than the earlier version: 100 cm x 140 cm instead of 56 cm x 92.5 cm. Back in October, Sharp said its second-generation panels could convert 9 percent of the sunlight that strikes them into electricity.

That efficiency is low or about the same as other types of thin films on the market today, but it's much lower than the conventional silicon panels (mostly in the mid-teens). As a result, amorphous silicon thin films are considered more suitable for projects located on ample-sized land instead of rooftops.

But whether amorphous silicon thin films could indeed produce cheaper electricity over time and attract developers remains a big question. Many amorphous silicon panel makers have begun commercial production only in the past year.

Some analysts have argued that the thin films' efficiencies are too low and their prices aren't low enough at this point to grab much market share.

Suntech Power (NYSE:STP), which is commissioning its amorphous silicon thin film factory, conceded this week that its thin films aren't likely to get a lot of buyers in the near future.