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Chinese company snaps up solar startup MiaSole

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MiaSolé, the thin-film solar panel maker that has struggled in recent months, has found a buyer. China's Hanergy Energy has agreed to buy the Silicon Valley startup for the bargain basement price of $30 million, according to a shareholder letter obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle.

MiaSolé will continue to operate as a wholly owned subsidiary of Hanergy Energy, the Chronicle reported. The deal is expected to close at the end of the month.

MiaSolé's problems mirror the woes of other thin-film companies, which use materials other than silicon in their solar cells. A precipitous drop in silicon-based solar panel prices has led to profit losses in the thin-film solar sector, causing companies to cut jobs, file for bankruptcy or delay expansion plans. Even General Electric, which has considerably larger sources of capital, postponed its thin-film solar factory plans in July due to market conditions.

MiaSolé, makes solar panels using copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) to convert sunlight into electricity, has made strides with the efficiency of its panels and its manufacturing process. The company makes its solar panels by depositing the materials on a flexible stainless steel substrate, producing all of the layers necessary for its solar cell in a single continuous process. This so-called sputtering process cuts manufacturing time and production costs, the company has said.

In the past, it didn't appear to have trouble attracting investors. Some reports estimate MiaSolé has raised $500 million or more in venture capital. Still, it has struggled to scale up production.

Cost pressure from Chinese solar manufacturers prompted MiaSolé to seek out Intel's expertise in April 2011to produce its ultra thing photovoltaic panels at scale. The company continued to raise funds including $55 million in March 2012. At the time, the funding round appeared it would buy the startup enough time to attract the major partners and additional investors needed to scale up its operations.

Five months later, MiaSolé announced it would reorganize in an effort to reduce costs, a plan designed to buy some time while it continued strategic discussions with potential partners. The company said it would keep its employees in the technology, commercial and flexible product areas and cut staff in manufacturing and operations despite its previous claims of a commercial pipeline bigger than 1 gigawatt. At the time, CEO John Carrington said he expected to finalize a partnership within 90 days.

Meanwhile, Hanergy has taken full advantage of the painful consolidation occurring within the solar manufacturing sector. The company completed its acquisition of Solibro, another CIGS thin-film panel maker, just last week.

Photo: MiaSolé

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— By on October 1, 2012, 5:29 AM PST

Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure