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Solar Energy

Showa Shell invests $1 billion in new thin-film plant

by Jean-François Tremblay
September 14, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 37

Japan’s Showa Shell will spend almost $1.1 billion to build a plant that will produce copper-indium-selenium (CIS) thin-film photovoltaic cells. The company expects demand to rise because of government programs in the U.S. and Japan that subsidize buyers of solar cells.

To speed construction of the new facility, Showa Shell will buy a Hitachi plasma-display plant in Miyazaki, Japan, and fit it with new production equipment. Showa Shell already operates two CIS plants, but the latest one will have nine times the capacity of the existing facilities combined.

Stefan de Haan, a photovoltaics analyst at the electronics market research firm iSuppli, tells C&EN that both CIS and copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) cells can be made more cheaply than cells based on polysilicon. Up to now, however, mass production of CIS and CIGS cells has proven to be problematic, he says.

Thin-film cells generate electricity from the sun less efficiently than polysilicon ones. CIGS and CIS cells, however, have the potential to reach “the highest efficiency among the various types of thin-film concepts at a comparable production cost,” de Haan says.

Only a handful of companies make CIS cells. One is Avancis, a joint venture owned until recently by Shell and the French materials maker Saint-Gobain. A Showa Shell spokeswoman tells C&EN that the firm’s technology was developed independently from Shell and its affiliates. Shell, she points out, sold its stake in Avancis to its partner last month.

Showa Shell is a Tokyo-listed oil refiner owned 35% by Shell, 15% by Saudi Aramco, and 50% by the public. The firm wants to expand its solar business to a size equal to that of its refining business by 2014.


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