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[HONG KONG] The green energy potential of thin-film solar panels has propelled Li Hejun to the top of China's rich-list, but his Hanergy Holdings has yet to prove it can turn impressive laboratory research into commercially successful products.
Hanergy Thin Film Power, a Hong Kong-listed unit, has seen its value soar six-fold in the past year to US$37 billion - more than its nearest two dozen rivals combined.
Hanergy and some analysts say the meteoric rise has been fuelled in part by Beijing's efforts to promote solar energy. But some industry insiders say it has more to do with the firm's own bullish proclamations on thin-film solar panels and the competitiveness of its products.
Some experts, including a Hanergy sales executive, say the firm's products are not efficient or cheap enough and are far from ready to take any major market share from conventional panels made with crystalline silicons.
"There's no real reason to switch to thin film unless the learning curve for thin film goes steeper," Christoph Flink, a solar specialist and senior director of JA Solar, a major US-listed Chinese maker of conventional panels, told Reuters. "But I don't see it happening," he said, echoing views of a number of experts interviewed by Reuters in the past month.
Thin-film solar panels account for only about a tenth of the global solar panel industry, and many non-Chinese thin-film panel makers have gone out of business due to the technical challenges and sharp falls in silicon prices. US-based First Solar and Japan's Solar Frontier K.K. are among few big solar companies still pursuing thin-film technology, and are widely regarded as industry leaders.
Light and flexible thin-film panels are potentially adaptable to a wide range of applications, including rooftop power generation, and for charging cars and mobile phones. But they have failed to make big inroads into solar markets partly because their efficiency in converting sunlight into electricity, at up to around 15 per cent in utility projects, lags the 17-18 per cent performance of traditional units.
Still, the flamboyant billionaire Mr Li remains confident that Hanergy has mastered the technology. Sporting a pinstripe suit and gold tie, Li last month told the annual meeting of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing that Hanergy was ready for a mass roll-out of its products. "Thin film technology is already mature. The core technology of portable energy is thin-film," Li said, noting Hanergy panels had topped 30 per cent conversion efficiency.
What he didn't say was that the 30 per cent conversion efficiency ratio was a laboratory-based result that experts say is hard to replicate in projects.
The Hanergy sales executive, who asked not to be identified as he's not authorised to publicly discuss the matter, said Mr Li was referring to the research result of cells made by Alta Devices, a US thin-film solar modules maker acquired by Hanergy last year.
"The 30 per cent is the research conversion efficiency rate for a thin-film technology used in aerospace or defence industries, like satellites. It uses a special kind of material which is extremely rare and expensive," he said. "If we can achieve such an efficiency ratio for all solar cells, we can build a real solar-powered car," he said. "That would be a revolution." Calls and emails to Hanergy's Beijing headquarters seeking comment went unanswered.
Hanergy said in August it bought Alta Devices, which had achieved efficiency as high as 30.8 per cent for its thin-film cell using Gallium Arsenide technology - certified by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
For decades, scientists have been trying to enhance the performance of solar cells. Researchers at the University of New South Wales in December said they set a new world record with a conversion rate of 40.4 per cent. The result was independently verified at the NREL, the university said.
Mr Li, who made a fortune from investing in hydropower projects, entered the thin-film business in 2009. Hanergy has since acquired several struggling Western panel makers.
Last year, Hanergy supplied thin-film panels to charging stations for electric cars in major Chinese cities in a project involving Tesla Motors Inc. It also has retail stores and launched online sales of its thin-film products such as portable phone chargers - with a 48-watt charger priced at 2,999 yuan (S$650).
Asked in an online Hanergy customer chatroom how long it would take to fully charge a standard iPhone with the charger, a salesperson responded: "We don't recommend using the product to charge a smartphone directly ... because the electric current produced by a solar mobile charger is unstable." In speeches, Li has predicted thin-film panels will lead to a global energy revolution, with the market growing to 8 trillion yuan (US$1.29 trillion) in three years.