First Solar—A Survivor That Stands Alone

First Solar logoOne of the biggest energy stories of the century so far has been the steep drop in solar panel prices, but the legendary drop occurred in a specific sector of the solar market, the dominant crystalline silicon solar PV sector. This resulted in the collapse of numerous solar companies and even whole sub-sectors, such as concentrated solar thermal power (CSP) and concentrated photovoltaics (CPV).

Before the most rapid drops, thin-film solar was growing its market share thanks to low-cost solar panels primarily built by market leader First Solar. The crystalline silicon price drops threatened First Solar, but the company actually pushed its way through the crisis less scathed than most and is as competitive as ever. Furthermore, First Solar’s panel efficiency has been increasing rapidly, while crystalline silicon solar PV efficiency has stagnated.

One key benefit First Solar’s thin-film solar panels have is that they hold up much better to heat. Their efficiency is not reduced nearly as much as crystalline silicon solar PV in high temperatures. Taking this into account, First Solar’s thin-film solar panels can be more cost-competitive in some projects where it seems on the surface that they’d be more expensive.

First Solar is unique in at least one other way. It’s telling that First Solar is the only thin-film solar module company that lands on the list of the top 10 solar module manufacturers year after year. First Solar stands leagues above other thin-film solar companies, dominating this niche market. Its IP and focus on R&D seem like they will hold First Solar leagues above others in this market indefinitely. If crystalline silicon solar PV doesn’t advance more in the next few years while First Solar continues its current trend, we could see a massive shift in important segments of the solar PV sector back toward thin-film solar, and who could really compete with First Solar if that happened?

With First Solar’s continued innovation, its existing advantages, and its strong vertical integration, I think it is one of the companies most likely to dominate in the solar energy era. There are actually just a couple of companies I put in that category: it and SunPower. SolarCity (with its new Silevo manufacturing arm), Yingli Green Energy, and Trina Solar might as well, but I’m slightly less bullish on them.

Throughout the massive crystalline silicon solar PV price drops, First Solar remained one of the top 10 solar module manufacturers globally. It also consistently sits at #1 or #2 in development of solar farms. It is no surprise at all that First Solar has landed on the 2015 Zayed Future Energy Prize finalist list in the Large Corporation category. We’ll see if it is able to beat out Panasonic, Enel Green Power, and IKEA.

Originally published on Sustainnovate.

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