First Solar pushes pedal in solar-efficiency race

Industry cost leader First Solar says it expects to bring thin-film solar panels to market with an efficiency between 14 percent and 15 percent in three years, as competition heats up.

Many utility-scale projects use First Solar panels because they are relatively cheap. Even though they are less efficient than silicon, project developers are often not constrained by space.
Many utility-scale projects use First Solar panels because they are relatively cheap. Even though they are less efficient than silicon, project developers are often not constrained by space. First Solar

Pushing to stay one step ahead of rivals, First Solar today set a new mark for the efficiency of its solar panels.

The company said that it achieved 14.4 percent efficiency in converting sunlight to electric power for a panel in its research labs. At the individual solar-cell level, the efficiency is 17.3 percent. (Solar cells are assembled and linked together in a solar panel).

For solar-panel manufacturers, efficiency and production costs are the two primary levers to differentiate products. With the ramp-up of well-financed Chinese manufacturers, the price of solar panels has plummeted over the past three years, leading to the failure of a handful of companies and financial losses at many others.

Given the brutal cost competition, how quickly the many thin-film solar companies can ramp up their efficiency has become a critical technical race. By boosting efficiency and maintaining steady production costs, panel makers can deliver more power per panel.

First Solar said it expects to be able to manufacture thin-film solar cells at between 14.5 percent and 15 percent efficiency by the end of 2015.

Thin-film solar cells are typically cheaper to manufacture than traditional silicon solar cells, but their efficiency is lower. Now First Solar, which makes cadmium telluride solar cells, along with other thin-film manufacturers is aiming to match silicon on efficiency. "These records also underscore the tremendous ongoing potential of CdTe compared to silicon-based technologies," said Dave Eaglesham, First Solar's chief technology officer.

First Solar, which ousted its CEO and cut its earnings forecast earlier this year, faces fresh competition from General Electric and a host of startups that make solar cells with CIGS, a combination of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium. GE has begun construction of a factory in Colorado to make cadmium telluride cells, which company executives said would reach 14 percent efficiency in 2013.

 

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