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Martin LaMonica

A View from Martin LaMonica

Solar company Miasole Bought Cheap by China's Hanergy

Once-hot thin film solar company Miasole sold for only $30 million but it’s technology may now be deployed at larger scale.

  • October 1, 2012

Miasole, a company founded at the height of optimism for thin-film solar technology, has been acquired for $30 million by Chinese energy project developer Hanergy Holdings.

Miasole developed custom equipment for making CIGS solar panels at its operation in California. Credit: Miasole

The San Francisco Chronicle on Friday reported the acquisition based on documents sent to Miasole’s investors. Miasole will become a subsidiary of Hanergy Holdings and no employees of Miasole, which is based in Santa Clara, California, will be laid off in the first 12 months, the report said. 

Miasole is not commenting but a person familiar with the deal today confirmed the basic details.

The acquisition is a poor outcome for investors. The company, first funded in 2004, has raised about $500 million and was once valued at $1.2 billion, according to reports. Earlier this year, it raised an additional $55 million to expand production of its solar panels made with thin-film solar cells. Investors included Silicon Valley venture capital companies once-active in clean technologies, including Kleiner Perkins Caufiled & Byers and VantagePoint Venture Partners.

Finding a buyer, however, does indicate that Miasole’s technology will be deployed, rather than it sold off as assets. Hanergy Holdings develops energy projects in hydropower, wind, and solar. In June, the company acquired thin-film solar company Solibro from QCells of Germany.

Like Solibro, Miasole makes thin-film solar panels using a combination of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium (CIGS). In the mid-2000s, several startups bet on CIGS and other thin-film materials as a way to undercut traditional silicon-based solar panels on price.

Over the past few years, though, Chinese manufacturers of silicon solar cells and panels have built massive factories and lowered costs dramatically, with the price of panels dropping 50 percent in the last year. (See, Once-Mighty SunTech Struggles to Survive.)

Thin-film solar cells are less efficient than silicon, but have traditionally been less expensive to make. With the plunge in costs overall, though, a number of thin-film solar companies are struggling to be competitive. (See, Thin Film Solar Upstarts Claim New Records But Still Chase Success.)

Although well financed through much of its development, Miasole ran into technical difficulties and problems scaling up manufacturing, which relies on its proprietary equipment. Earlier this year, it said it had achieved 15.5 percent efficiency with its cells and demonstrated a cost per watt of 50 cents, which is below today’s market leaders.

In August, the company restructured to seek out a partner with the means to finance further growth. GTM Research estimates that Miasole shipped 60 megawatts worth of solar power last year, far less than CIGS market leader Solar Frontier’s 577 megawatts. 

It’s likely that Asian companies will continue to acquire or invest in U.S.-based energy technology companies. Earlier this year, Chinese company Wanxiang bought battery advanced lithium ion battery company A123 Systems. (See, A123’s China Deal is the Latest Energy Controversy.) Analysts say Chinese conglomerates are seeking out technologies to better compete with domestic and international rivals. 

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