The cost of silicon-based solar panels, driven by global economies of scale and Chinese industrial policy, has dropped so precipitously that any other materials system intent on competing is fighting an almost insurmountable challenge. Another material might supplant silicon someday, but for the next decade, silicon's industrial heft and massive supply chain will dominate this industry.
Silicon PV module pricing has fallen by a remarkable 33.8 percent since the first half of 2016, according to GTM Research. It's the kind of cost plunge that changes industries and markets.
When we last reported on Semprius, the VC-funded startup had a core semiconductor technology that the firm believed could make concentrated PV more competitive. In December 2011, NREL validated a 41 percent efficiency at 1,000 suns for a Semprius cell. But time seems to be running out for Semprius.
The firm hoped to be a vertically integrated manufacturer of high-concentration PV panels using its own gallium arsenide (GaAs) micro-transfer printing-based chips, while selling the panels to system integrators for mounting on two-axis trackers. The firm's micro-transfer printing technology would make it possible to reuse the GaAs substrate and greatly reduce costs.
Semprius has won more than $40 million in VC funding since its founding from investors including Siemens Venture Capital, ARCH Venture Partners, Intersouth Partners, Morgan Creek Capital Management, Illinois Emerging Technologies Fund, Applied Ventures and In-Q-Tel. The company received a $2.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency and $2.3 million as part of a Department of Defense contract.
But CPV is a troubled solar sub-market with roughly 100 megawatts deployed and $500 million invested over the last 10 years, compared to the hundreds of billions received by the silicon industry. China's Suncore is still in the CPV business, as is Morgan Solar. Amonix had to shut down its Las Vegas production facility in 2012 and has rechristened itself as Arzon Solar, with Amonix founder Vahan Garboushian as CEO. Soitec left the CPV business in 2015. SolFocus shut down in 2013. GreenVolts went out of business in 2012. JDSU quietly exited the CPV cell market after acquiring QuantaSol. Energy Innovations, Soliant, Concentrator Optics, SunPower's C7 and Skyline Solar's low-concentration PV (LCPV) have all passed on. Cogenra moved from LCPV-plus-heat to a solar-cell mounting business that got bought by SunPower. Solaria is still building or licensing LCPV and solar windows. Semprius competitor Solar Junction was acquired, and Cyrium went out of business.
And now the bill is coming due for Semprius.
- Earlier this year Semprius closed on a new loan “worth nearly $500,000 from 10 debt investors,” according to Triangle Business Journal, which adds that Semprius has closed a debt round every few months since 2013. “In calendar [year] 2016 alone, Semprius inked nearly $2 million in four separate debt offerings, and the total increases to nearly $14.5 million when you add up its loans over the past three years.” Presumably, Semprius has been unable to locate a VC investor willing to do less due diligence than its current syndicate.
- Semprius received an incentives package worth $7.8 million in return for creating 256 jobs at a new production plant in Vance County in eastern North Carolina. According to reports, Semprius' headcount peaked at 30 employees. “While Vance County has extended some of its deadlines to May 2017, the federal guideline for its Community Development Block Grant of $750,000 has expired. The company is in the process of paying those funds back to the county.” Semprius will have other incentives being clawed back in 2017.
- Siemens, a potential customer and strategic investor in Semprius, completely divested from the solar industry in 2013.
- According to their LinkedIn profiles, the company's VP of business development and executive VP of manufacturing and technology development just left the firm (although their names remain on the company website).
We reached out for comment but did not hear back from CEO Joseph Carr, CFO Helena Yee and members of the company's board, including Clinton Bybee of ARCH Venture Partners, Professor John A. Rogers and John Glushik of Intersouth Partners.