Solar Junction, a venture capital-funded solar startup that raised more than $30 million from investors Advanced Technology Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and New Enterprise Associates, has received a financial commitment from Saudi entity KACST (King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology) and one of its investment arms, TAQNIA, according to sources close to the company.
A company founder spoke to GTM of an acquisition, as well as the identity of the new Saudi owner. The wheels started turning on this deal while original founder Jim Weldon was still CEO. Founder Vijit Sabnis, who replaced Weldon as CEO last year, would not provide any details. Weldon has declined to comment. KACST and TAQNIA have not responded to GTM’s inquiries.
Solar Junction executed on its technical goals, developing record-setting triple-junction solar cells in the lab for the concentrated photovoltaics (CPV) industry at a relatively modest burn rate. But building semiconductor components for an industry that doesn’t exist is not a workable business plan for a VC-funded firm.
Solar Junction hit an NREL-verified 44 percent cell efficiency (at 947 suns) in 2012, a world record that held until Sharp hit 44.4 percent for its triple-junction solar cell (at 302 suns). At one point, the firm was moving to a 6-inch production fabrication facility, partially funded by a U.S. DOE SUNPATH contract. The hope has been that more efficient compound semiconductors would improve the economics of CPV.
CPV has a few tens of megawatts in the field. The largest CPV deployment in North America is the 30-megawatt Alamosa site in Colorado owned by The Carlyle Group, with hardware from Amonix.
The few potentially viable commercial entrants in this technology-rich but economically challenged science include Soitec and China’s Suncore. Soitec has deeper corporate pockets and is vertically integrated, with CPV plants (at undisclosed costs) in the works in the U.S. and South Africa.
Amonix had to shut down its Las Vegas production facility in July 2012 and has rechristened itself as Arzon Solar with Amonix founder Vahan Garboushian in the CEO role. SolFocus shut down in 2013. GreenVolts went out of business in 2012. JDSU quietly exited the CPV cell market after acquiring QuantaSol. Energy Innovations, Soliant, Concentrator Optics and Skyline Solar’s low-concentration PV (LCPV) have all passed on.
Early-stage startups such as Morgan Solar, REhnu and Semprius still believe that CPV’s economic riddle can be solved. Solaria is still building or licensing LCPV. SunPower believes its C7 low-power concentrator product has potential in China. Cogenra’s combined heat and LCPV technology has a compelling business case.
Solar Junction CEO Sabnis told GTM in an earlier interview that no other PV technology has the headroom to improve its efficiency like multi-junction solar cells. Sabnis cited several studies showing 70 percent theoretical efficiencies from a 5- or 6-junction cell. More practically, he sees 50 percent cell efficiency as being achievable in two to four years, which could get DC module efficiencies to greater than 40 percent.
Weighted-average PV system prices hit $2.59 per watt in the fourth quarter of last year, according to GTM Research’s Solar Market Solar Market Insight report. Globally, large-scale project pricing is well under $2 per watt and regularly under $1.50 per watt, based on GTM Research’s latest figures. Those are the most important numbers for CPV vendors to keep in mind if they wish to compete in the solar industry.