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Thin Film Photovoltaic Partnership Project

NREL's Thin Film Photovoltaic (PV) Partnership Project led R&D on emerging thin-film solar technologies in the United States from 1994 to 2009. The project made many advances in thin-film PV technologies that allowed the United States to attain world leadership in this area of solar technology. Three national R&D teams focused on thin-film semiconductor materials: amorphous silicon (a-Si), cadmium telluride (CdTe), and copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) and its alloys. The Module Reliability Team and Environmental Health and Safety Team were crosscutting. The teams comprised researchers from the solar industry, academia, and NREL who focused their efforts on improving materials, devices, and manufacturing processes—all leading to scaling up the technologies for commercial production.

Project Goals

  • Support the commercialization of reliable thin-film materials and modules.
  • Build a technology base on which these advanced technologies could continue to be successful in improving manufacturing and chart progress in performance, reliability, and cost reductions.
  • Sustain innovation in thin-film technologies to support long-term PV cost reduction and performance goals (for example, low-cost, 15%-efficient modules with a 30-year lifetime).

Project Highlights

The project resulted in significantly reduced manufacturing and product costs and a substantial return on investment for both the U.S. government and the industries involved. As a result, the production of thin films in the United States grew from about 10 megawatts (MW) in 2003 to more than 250 MW in 2008.

Solar Companies

Photo of factory workers moving CdTe solar modules down a manufacturing line at a First Solar plant in Germany.

First Solar has manufacturing facilities in the United States, Germany, and Malaysia.
Photo from First Solar

During the project's last decade, the focus was on three large thin-film manufacturers: First Solar in CdTe, Global Solar in CIGS, and United Solar Ovonic (Uni-Solar) in a-Si. The remaining partner companies were small businesses establishing pilot production operations. NREL's R&D assistance to these companies ranged from characterization of thin-film materials to improving manufacturing processes and verifying efficiencies. The cost-shared R&D and collaborations resulted in the companies having better products available for the rapidly expanding PV market. Many of today's successful solar companies were NREL partners at some point in their development.

First Solar (CdTe)

  • In 2003, developed a new solar cell coater process that reduced maintenance costs by enhancing material utilization rates and automating and improving production
  • In 2007, expanded to a 144-MW manufacturing facility in the United States
  • In 2008, achieved a production cost of $1.08 per watt
  • In 2009, achieved a production cost of $0.89 cents per watt

In 2009, became the largest solar producer in the world, holding 12.8% of the world market share.

Global Solar (CIGS)

  • Developed thin-film CIGS solar modules with efficiencies greater than 18%
  • In 2004, developed "peel-and-stick" thin-film roofing material
  • In 2008, expanded to a 40-MW U.S manufacturing facility and added a new 35-MW CIGS manufacturing plant in Germany.
Photo of a gloved hand lifting a sheet of solar material for the camera.

A thin-film solar sheet with the UNI-SOLAR brand made by United Solar Ovonic.
Photo from United Solar Ovonic, NREL/PIX 15779

Uni-Solar (a-Si)

  • In 2004, developed triple-junction solar cells with an efficiency of nearly 12% that could be made using a "roll-to-roll" deposition process on stainless-steel sheet metal
  • In 2005, developed "peel-and-stick" thin-film solar roofing material that reduced installation and balance-of-system costs
  • In 2008, expanded to a 160-MW manufacturing facility.

ITN Energy Systems (CIGS)

  • Developed an intelligent processing system to improve processing conditions and yields in cell and module fabrication for CIGS solar cells.

Ascent Solar (CIGS)

  • In 2008, developed aflexible monolithically integrated solar module
  • In 2009, NREL verified the highest efficiency at 10.4%.

National Laboratories and Universities

NREL's national laboratory and university partners supported project objectives to significantly reduce costs. University partners could provide a better understanding of solar cell physics because, unlike solar companies, they were generally able to reveal more research detail. University research contributions ranged from characterizing the role of impurities in solar cell materials to new characterization techniques and deposition processes that contributed to device efficiency and reliability. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory developed low-cost transparent encapsulation schemes for CIGS cells that reduced power losses.

Thin-Film Module Reliability

Studying and testing the reliability of thin-film modules was critical to understanding how various module designs worked and which areas needed improvement to assure 30-year outdoor reliability. This work was particularly important when the researchers developed new module designs or reconfigured existing ones.

Environmental Health and Safety

Advances in health and safety included ensuring the safe handling of toxic chemicals in manufacturing as well as helping solar companies set up module recycling programs. Brookhaven National Laboratory was a key contributor to this area of R&D.

Project Partners

Solar Companies

  • Boeing
  • BP Solar
  • Energy Conversion Devices
  • Energy Photovoltaics
  • First Solar
  • Global Solar Energy
  • Golden Photon
  • International Solar Electric Technologies
  • ITN Energy Systems
  • Shell Solar Industries
  • Siemens Solar
  • United Solar Ovonic (Uni-Solar)

National Laboratories, Institutes, and Universities

  • Brookhaven National Laboratory
  • Case Western University
  • Colorado School of Mines
  • Colorado State University
  • Iowa State University
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology
  • Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
  • Pennsylvania State University
  • Syracuse University
  • Texas A&M University
  • University of Delaware (Institute of Energy Conversion)
  • University of Florida
  • University of Georgia (Georgia Institute of Technology)
  • University of Illinois
  • University of Nevada
  • University of North Carolina
  • University of Oregon
  • University of South Florida
  • University of Central Florida (Florida Solar Energy Center)
  • University of Toledo, Ohio
  • University of Utah.


Awards and Recognition

The program and its partners shared many R&D 100 Awards for thin-film products that reached early commercialization.

  • 1984—Boeing: CIS device
  • 1991—Golden Photon: CdTe modules
  • 1998—Uni-Solar: Triple-junction a-Si
  • 1999—Siemens Solar: CIS modules
  • 2002—BP Solar: Powerview modules
  • 2003—First Solar: High-rate module deposition
  • 2004—Global Solar: Flexible CIS modules


For more details about the Thin Film PV Partnership Program, read the following reports available as Adobe Acrobat PDFs.

Overview and Challenges of Thin Film Solar Electric Technologies. 2008.

Processing Materials Devices and Diagnostics for Thin Film Photovoltaics: Fundamental and Manufacturability Issues; Final Report, University of Delaware. 5 September 2001–31 May 2008.

Thin Film CIGS and CdTe Photovoltaic Technologies: Commercialization, Critical Issues, and Application. Conference Paper presented at the 22nd European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference. (2007).

Lessons learned from the Photovoltaic Manufacturing Technology and PV Manufacturing R&D and Thin-Film PV Partnership Projects. 2006.