Beijing's support for manufacturers of traditional silicon solar cells has prompted complaints by the United States and Europe that it is violating free-trade rules.
Li acknowledged his company is "going against the tide" of a market that favors silicon. But he said the renewable energy market should rebound late this year or in early 2014, boosting demand for thin film. He said the more advanced technology required to make it means small suppliers cannot rush in as they did with silicon, which was easier to make.
Hanergy began as a dam operator and says it now has 6 gigawatts of hydro generating capacity. It later added wind farms and launched a business in 2009 to build and operate solar power facilities.
Li said the MiaSole acquisition was paid for out of cash flow from Hanergy's hydro and wind energy businesses of several billion yuan (several hundred million dollars) a year.
"We don't have to worry about money," he said.
MiaSole and Solibro make thin film of a compound called CIGS, for the metals copper, indium, gallium and selenide. It can be sandwiched between sheets of glass that can be used as tinted windows on a building or integrated into flexible material for use on rooftops.
MiaSole shipped thin-film glass panels with a total generating capacity of 50 megawatts last year and plans to start selling the flexible product this year, said John Carrington, the company's CEO. He said it sees the United States, India, Japan and the Middle East as promising markets.
The company expects to reduce prices to below 50 cents per watt of generating capacity by next year, cheaper than even the current depressed price of silicon cells, Carrington said. He said it eventually wants to cut that to 33 cents.
MiaSole's owners concluded last year it needed a partner that could supply financing and line up generation projects, Carrington said. He said that while prices of solar cells are depressed, developers that can supply completed projects are very profitable.
"The opportunity for us to have a broader offering is very compelling," Carrington said.
Hanergy announced an agreement in September to outfit IKEA stores in Britain with thin-film solar panels. Li said the company is pursuing possible similar deals with retailers in the United States.
As for whether the tie-up with Hanergy might make MiaSole eligible for Chinese research grants or other aid, Carrington said, "It's hard to tell. We're not sure yet."
Hanergy Group: www.hanergy.com/locale.do?language=en&country=US