Bright outlook for climate smart solar cell production
Swedish Midsummer sells manufacturing machinery for thin film solar cells and integrated solar cell technology for roofs. The concept is based on a new technology with a climate-smart and flexible alternative to silicon cells. However, the company's journey to today's multi-million euro valuation has been far from straight as an arrow.
Behind the brilliant idea for Midsummer's products is not – as could reasonably be expected – many years of experience in solar cell production. Instead, their business idea stems from many years of CD production.
It was thanks to this background that the founders first had their flash of genius.
– Our idea was that since the optical layer in CDs and thin film solar cells was relatively similar, it should be possible to use similar manufacturing processes, says Eric Jaremalm, Vice-President at Midsummer.
The plan was to transfer the cost-effective CD manufacturing process to the solar cell industry. The company's CIGS thin film cells could, thanks to their high flexibility and strength, also be integrated on roofs and into buildings to a greater extent – and with a smaller climate footprint – compared to traditional silicon cells.
Dark clouds in the solar cell sky
At an early stage, the manufacturing process caught the eye of the Swedish Energy Agency, having the potential to become a key technology for the energy transition. In 2007, Midsummer was granted support in the form of a loan to allow it to develop its production process.
– It was exciting that they based their business plan on the research on innovative CIGS solar cells, and that they had extensive experience of a production technology that was relevant. Their technology could be applied to materials other than those that could be used with silicon solar cells, which created new interesting opportunities, says Dag Agnvall, Senior Advisor at the Swedish Energy Agency.
The plan was for the loan to cover one part of financing the mass production, while venture capital would account for the remainder.
– Just then came the Lehman Brothers crash. After the financial crisis of 2008, it became impossible to find external financing, says Eric Jaremalm.
The crash marked the first occasion when, due to events beyond its control, Midsummer was forced to redesign its business plan. But it was far from the last. After receiving two new research grants from the Swedish Energy Agency, starting in 2009, Midsummer abandoned its plans to mass-produce thin film solar cells. Instead, the new business plan was to sell the manufacturing machinery itself.
Silicon cell prices plunge
Unfortunately, this didn't result in the turnaround that Midsummer had been waiting for – but the next setback. As a result of the financial crisis, the Chinese government had taken steps to breathe life into the country's economy by investing heavily in renewable energy, among other things. When Midsummer was making extensive preparations to launch its DUO manufacturing machinery in autumn 2011, the price of silicon solar cells suddenly collapsed.
– At the same time, China also learned how to clean silicon, which had previously been Western knowledge. Silicon solar cells therefore became extremely cheap, cheaper than our thin film solar cells, says Eric Jaremalm.
Midsummer was forced to rethink once again. As a result, it was granted commercialisation support in 2013 from the Swedish Energy Agency to develop its business plan.
This time it would turn out better for the company.
Third time lucky
The new business plan was to market what had made the CIGS technology unique from the very beginning – the flexible, lightweight and durable material that could easily be integrated into buildings, without glass and frames. In a way that is also beautiful to the eye.
– As solar cells gained in popularity, more and more people felt that they were unsightly on houses and roofs. This resulted in an increased demand for the type of solar cells that could be an integral part of the design of the building, says Eric Jaremalm.
Midsummer's increased focus on solar cells integrated into metal roofs and tile roofs (in collaboration with Benders), a new major Chinese customer on the manufacturing side, and a European market that had opened up for smaller photovoltaic installations, finally led to success and to Midsummer becoming a publicly quoted company on the First North stock exchange in 2018, where today it is valued at millions.
– We wouldn't be here today if we hadn't received the support from the Swedish Energy Agency. All four grants we received have been useful to us in different ways, says Eric Jaremalm.
Future demand for Midsummer's technology does not appear to be diminished. It's not particularly difficult to understand why: according to calculations made using WWF's Climate Solver Tool for emissions reduction potential – from 2025, the company's technology could provide a reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions of 8 432 000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents per year.