Solar project developer Belectric (client registration required) has acquired the European operation of Konarka (client registration required), the bankrupt bulk heterojunction (BHJ) organic photovoltaic (OPV) developer (see the report “Looking for a Future in Organic Photovoltaics” — client registration required). The acquisition will be part of the Belectric’s new business called Belectric OPV, which plans to further develop the technology and focus on serving automotive and building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) applications (see the report “Building Integrated Photovoltaics: Moving Beyond Showcase Projects” — client registration required). Belectric plans to set up manufacturing capabilities using the technology in the next few months.
As part of the trend of developers like Hanergy (client registration required) moving upstream into module production, Belectric has been an aggressive pursuer of thin-film technologies – witness its work with First Solar (client registration required) and Solar Frontier. However, the performance metrics of Konarka’s OPV technology make it poorly suited for BIPV and automotive applications. Potential automotive and BIPV customers will have a hard time overlooking the high cost per watt and low efficiency of the technology in order to take advantage of OPV’s form factor, weight, and visual properties, like its diverse color offerings. However, customers in automotive and BIPV will be particularly wary of OPV’s lifetime, which does not even make it five years. Belectric needs to focus on its R&D efforts to improve the lifetime and also work with barrier film developers, as water and oxygen contamination are a leading failure mechanism. Unless the lifetime improves, the manufacturing facilities will not be producing much of anything, much as Konarka’s (client registration required) plant. However, the challenges and long timelines ahead mean Belectric should be wary of investing significant resources in it.
Driven by the promise of cheap, printed solar modules that could be made colorful and transparent, many technically unsavvy investors continued to invest in struggling Massachusetts organic photovoltaic developer Konarka (Client registration required) to the tune of $170 million, with an additional $30 million coming from grant funding. Konarka took that investment and built what it claimed was a 1 GW manufacturing line, although the line would certainly never come close to that capacity. The math never added up for Konarka’s “Power Plastic,” which cost 10-times more and delivered 10-times less efficiency and lifetime when compared to alternative solar technologies Now, Konarka has declared bankruptcy, validating Lux Research’s history of “strong caution” ratings.
Konarka’s underlying technology was never market-ready, and its failure was no surprise to those that read Lux Research’s profiles on the troubled company dating back more than three years. While taking a chance on its OPV technology in the early days arguably made sense, Konarka continued to burn through tens of millions long after it should have been clear that the technology wasn’t poised to be competitive in the timeframe needed for it to justify the investment. Konarka finally ran out of money, and creditors are now left to sell off the pieces to recoup a fraction of their sunken investment.
Konarka blamed the collapse on an inability to raise more funding. However, raising funding, more than solar module development, was where the company excelled. Finding market success in emerging technologies takes many factors, but a viable technology underpins all of them – something that Konarka never had and didn’t have a credible path to attain. A viable market helps, as well, and with a projected organic photovoltaic market size of a meager $159 million in 2020 (See the report “Looking for a Future in Organic Photovoltaics.” Client registration required.), Konarka won’t be the last to run out of investors who must be as long on patience as they are blessed with money. Buyers and investors beware.