First Solar sets record for thin-film solar tech

Records are made to be broken — even ones you set yourself. First Solar (s FSLR) has broken its own record for solar thin-film panels made of the material cadmium-telluride. The company announced Tuesday that it’s able to produce one that can convert 14.4 percent of the sunlight that hits it into electricity. The new record exceeds the 13.4 percent it achieved last year.
Solar technology developers boast of their efficiency breakthroughs to show not just its technical prowess but also their roadmaps for delivering better products. Although they have always devoted money and time to improving the efficiency of their solar cells and panels, many of them have stepped up those efforts in recent years as more companies enter the market and prices for solar panels have falling quickly.
Efficiency is correlated with how much power a panel of a given size can produce – more power means higher efficiencies. There is a fixed cost and amount of time for making each panel, and First Solar’s technology makes a panel in less than 2.5 hours. If the company produces each panel with a higher power rating (in watts), then that panel’s cost-per-watt is lower. Manufactures also can command higher prices for more efficient solar panels.
As we explained in a post last year when First Solar announced a cell efficiency record, the company was under pressure to show there was still a long life ahead for cadmium-telluride solar technology. The Arizona company has built a reputation for being able to mass produce solar panels efficiently and cheaply. But the efficiencies of its solar panels are a few percentage points lower than the more common silicon solar panels. As a result, it also charges less for its solar panels.
Solar power project developers also want more efficient solar panels because these panels allow them to use less space to build a same-size project. Land use has been one of the sticking points for gaining regulatory approval – critics often cite the disturbance or even destruction of wildlife habitat as the big reason for their opposition to a solar power plant. First Solar, which also develops and builds power plants and sells them, typically have to set aside land for wildlife protection in exchange for project approval.
By the way, solar cells are the individual pieces that make up a solar panel. The process of assembling cells into solar panels usually leads to a small loss of efficiency, so cell efficiency figures tend to be higher than their corresponding panel efficiencies.
First Solar is not only one of the largest solar panel makers in the world, but it has also been the lone big manufacturer of cadmium-telluride thin films. Many startups have sought to challenge its dominance over the years, but none has yet to emerge as a serious contender. But General Electric (s GE), the power plant equipment giant, is giving it a try, announcing last year it would build a 400MW factory in Colorado.
The two companies already are engaged in the “dude, my panels are better than your panels” competition. Last April, GE said it could produce panels with 12.8 percent efficiency. In July, First Solar said it could do 13.4 percent. Last October, GE executive Victor Abate told me the company aims to roll out panels with 14 percent efficiency when it begins shipping from the new factory in early 2013.
All these efficiency numbers represent targets for the companies. Setting efficiency records only shows that making higher-performing panels from their production equipment is possible. Mass-producing them requires changes to all of their equipment and the process so that the panels that roll off the lines will more or less achieve a uniform efficiency. First Solar runs a fleet of factories, which are located in the United States, Germany and Malaysia.
The average efficiency of First Solar’s mass-produced panels increased from 11.4 percent in 2010 to 11.7 percent in 2011. The company said the figure should go up to 12.7 percent by the end of this year. First Solar believes that by the end of 2015, it should be able to ship panels with 14.5 to 15 percent efficiency to its customers.
Photo courtesy of First Solar