Jennifer Runyon, Managing Editor, RenewableEnergyWorld.com
June 05, 2012 | 3 Comments
Thin-film solar panels are created through three different manufacturing techniques that use different core components: amorphous silicon (a-Si), cadmium telluride (CdTe) or copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) and copper indium sulfur/selenide (CIS).
In part one of this article, we talked with a-Si equipment manufacturer, Oerlikon Solar, which was recently purchased by Tokyo Electric. Here in part two, we talk with two heavy-hitters in the thin-film solar industry to hear their thoughts about the future of thin-film PV and the future of their technologies.
First Solar – Maker of Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) Thin-film; Developer of Utility-Scale Projects
First Solar has robust plans for the future, according to David Erhart, Marketing Communications Manager at the company.
Erhart explained that it is First Solar’s “thin-film technology that takes a simple piece of glass and turns it into a complete solar module in less than two and a half hours in a continuous automated process,” that has fueled the company’s success so far.
To date, the company has more than 5 gigawatts of modules installed worldwide and was the 1st company to break $1 per watt cost barrier, he said. It is currently manufacturers its panels at a cost of less than $.75 per watt and the company won’t stop there, according to Erhart. A recently announced restructuring of First Solar should bring the company’s average manufacturing to $0.70-$0.72 per watt in 2012, below prior expectations of $0.74 per watt. In 2013 the company estimates average module manufacturing costs will range from $0.60 to $0.64 per watt.
Erhart said that First Solar is the current world-record holder for CdTe PV cell efficiency at 17.3 percent and PV module efficiency at 14.4 percent, numbers that have been verified by the National Renewable Energy Lab. The company plans to take those efficiencies to scale. “We expect to take cadmium telluride thin-film solar technology to levels that it has never been before,” he said.
In addition to module manufacturing, First Solar has become the world’s largest builder and operator of utility-scale power plants. It boasts the “largest pipeline in the industry with more than 2.7 GW of solar PV plants under construction or in development with PPA,” Erhart said.
He pointed to three U.S. projects — the 290-MW Aqua Caliente, the 550-MW Topaz Solar Farm and 550-MW Desert Sunlight projects — as examples of some of the power plants that First Solar is developing, which also happen to be among the largest PV power plants under development in the world.
First Solar has now set its sights on the developing world, in line with many other solar power players.
While acknowledging that markets can shift on a dime, Erhart said “regardless of where the existing markets go, we want to invest in what we call long-term sustainable markets.” That makes a lot of sense when considering how the on-again, off-again subsidies that are in place in Europe have really dominated market development.
“We don’t want to wake up every day dependent on these subsidies,” said Erhart, explaining why the company is interested in more stable markets such as “markets that have a need for electricity, that have high irradiance, and have high costs of electricity,” he said.
First Solar CFO, Mark Widmar, echoed the company’s expansion plans in a conference call to investors. “Over the next couple of year, we also intend to make progress in sustainable markets,” he said. More details will be available during the company’s first quarter earnings call, scheduled for early May, after this article goes to press.
First Solar modules use “98 percent less semi-conductor material than the semi-conductor materials required for traditional crystalline silicon manufacturing processes,” said Erhart. That has meant that the company has had a significant cost advantage over the years, although GTM Research’s MJ Shaio points out that the cost-advantage window is closing.
“Scores of thin-film silicon manufacturers, drawn by the pied piper of propped poly prices, suddenly saw utilization rates collapse and their low efficiency, very low cost product turn into a very low efficiency, average cost product, evaporating any competitive advantage they might once have had,” he said in his thin-film report.
In terms of competition, Erhart sees the “usual suspects” as First Solar’s main rivals in the space. These are the crystalline solar PV module makers below:
However, he explains that it is not always just other solar companies that First Solar is in competition with: “When you are going into these emerging markets to help them with their dire energy needs, you are not necessarily competing with other solar panel manufacturers, you are competing with other forms of renewable energy,” he said. “In Saudi Arabia, for example, we are competing primarily with diesel, which they would rather sell as gasoline or petrochemicals than burn for their own domestic electricity.”
And as a builder of power plants, the company also can go head to head with “very large construction firms that have been building power plants for a long period of time,” he said.
While those firms have a lot of experience, First Solar has a lot to be proud of as well, according to Erhart. He said that the company has the lowest balance of systems (BOS) costs in the industry; an award winning safety record; and the fastest installation velocity in the industry.
First Solar CFO Widmar echoed Erhart’s enthusiasm about the company’s future. “Our captive pipeline shows that many of the world’s most sophisticated renewable energy investors continue to invest in projects using our technology, which is being deployed in some of the largest sites in the world, under the toughest desert conditions,” he said.
Other existing CdTe thin-film firms have not had quite the success that First Solar has had so far. Abound Solar recently announced plans to layoff 180 employees while it builds its next-generation higher-efficiency module.
GE, which acquired PrimeStar Solar last year, said it would be building a 400-MW CdTe factory in Aurora Colorado. The facility is under construction right now and GE has said that it expects panels to come off the assembly line this year.
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