Sustainable Energy

News of Acquisition Caps a Bad Year for Alta Devices

The reported acquisition by the Chinese company Hanergy is another sign lean times for Alta Devices, but it could ultimately help the technology.

Solar cells need to get more efficient to compete with fossil fuels.

Alta Devices, a startup developing lightweight, flexible, and very efficient solar cells, has reportedly been acquired by Hanergy, a Chinese company that has recently acquired other solar-cell startups at fire-sale prices (see “Solar Company Miasole Bought Cheap by China’s Hanergy”). Neither company is confirming the report. While Alta Devices has achieved record efficiency in its solar cells, it needs to prove that the technology can be manufactured economically. To do that, the company needs more money, which it has been struggling to raise.

Alta Devices has built a pilot plant that it hopes will convince investors that its technology can be a commercial success (see “Alta Devices: Finding a Solar Solution”). But it is still working on improving yields and reducing the number of steps in the process to decrease costs. And it currently lacks the funds needed to bring the pilot line up to full capacity, says CEO Chris Norris.

The acquisition by Hanergy—a large clean energy provider in China—could help Alta Devices scale up its technology. A day before the report of the Hanergy acquisition, Alta Devices founder and board member Harry Atwater told MIT Technology Review that there would soon be good news about the company’s ability to bring its technology to market. “I have to be careful not to speak out of turn as a board member of the company, but I think you’ll hear some interesting news announcements that will demonstrate that the Alta technology will get pushed to the next level in terms of manufacturing capability, which we’re excited about.”

Hanergy, which has a large hydropower business, has been trying to get into solar power, too, both manufacturing solar cells and installing them. Until now, Hanergy has been focused on developing solar cells based on what’s known as CIGS thin-film technology. Acquiring Alta Devices would be a change in direction. Alta makes solar cells based on gallium arsenide, which requires far different processing than CIGS.

Hanergy recently acquired three startups, Solibro, Miasole, and Global Solar Energy, that were attempting to scale up CIGS, a technology designed to provide a cheaper alternative to conventional silicon solar cells. But the prices for silicon solar cells fell far faster than expected, which made it hard for the new technology to compete, and many CIGS companies failed. In financial documents, Hanergy says it believes CIGS will eventually become a “mainstream” solar technology because of its potential low cost, and because such solar cells can be light and flexible, making them cheaper to install than heavy, rigid, conventional solar panels.

It’s not clear why Alta Devices has struggled to raise its current round of funding. (The company raised $120 million in previous rounds.) Many venture capitalists have lost money on solar-cell companies, so there might be general reluctance to put more money down, even if Alta’s technology looks promising.

Another possibility is that Alta’s technology is not performing as well as hoped. There’s no question that it can produce high-performance solar cells, having achieved world-record efficiencies that are far higher than what can be done with conventional silicon solar cells. But the challenge has always been to reduce manufacturing costs. Alta is developing technology that makes it possible to produce thin films of gallium arsenide, potentially reducing the costs of the technology, but the economics depend on the speed and yields of the process.

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