First Solar, Q-Cells set module records

First Solar tops 14.4% conversion efficiency with its CdTe modules, while Q-Cells touts cell . But there’s an important difference in the small print.

January 17, 2012 – Two more conversion efficiency benchmarks for two kinds of solar PV modules were reached this week.

First Solar says it’s added a full percentage point to its CdTe solar PV module efficiency in just six months, now at a NREL-confirmed record 14.4% total area efficiency, on modules fabbed out of its Perrysburg, OH plant. FSLR set the previous 13.4% mark last summer (along with 17.3% cell efficiency), which itself was a full two points more than the preceding year’s efforts. Average module efficiency is expected to rise from 11.7% in 2011 to 12.6% in 2012 with a “best-plant” 12.9% by 4Q12.

Q-Cells, meanwhile, says it has made mc-Si modules (60 cells) with aperture-area conversion efficiency of 18.5%, confirmed by Fraunhofer ISE, beating its own record of 18.1% likewise set last summer. (The firm’s Solibro unit topped 17.4% back in November with CIGS test cells.) The company also says it’s made Fraunhofer-confirmed 283Wp modules comprised of its “quasi-monocrystalline” cells, just shy of its 287Wp mark set in September. Both records are based on the company’s Q.antum cell technology now on pilot lines in Thalheim, with planned introduction later this year. Made on 180?m wafers mirrored and passivated with “functional nano-layers” (dielectric layers in combination with local contacts) on the rear side vs. conventional back surface field technology, the technology is the current mc-Si recordholder at 19.5% efficiency.

Those are two different solar PV technologies, with two different efficiency thresholds and expectations, and with one important difference: FSLR’s talking about total area efficiency, while Q-Cells refers to “aperture area.”

How efficiently the cells/modules convert sunlight into electricity is only part of the cost/benefit equation, of course — it’s a little difficult to compare all the benchmarks of costs and pricing across vendors and across technology types to arrive at a final cost/benefit analysis for any solar PV system in a given end-market (especially with 50%+ of an entire solar system’s costs coming in the balance-of-system end). But it’s a pretty universal fact that First Solar is in the industry’s driver’s seat when it comes to the key (manufacturing) metric of cost/W. And its long-term targets ($0.50-$0.54/W module costs, 14.5%-15% efficiency, $0.70/$0.75/W BOS costs, $100-$140/MWh LCOE, and $1.40-$1.60 system price excluding owner development costs) are what everyone from manufacturers to installers need to figure out how to match.

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