For over two decades, cadmium-telluride technology was considered inefficient due to its low power output and reliability problems. Now it has become a serious potential competitor to today’s dominant solar technology – silicon solar panels. Thin film panels are produced by layering coatings of semiconductor materials on sheets of glass, plastic or metal. One of the challenges in implementing this technology on a large scale basis is the toxicity of the heavy metal cadmium. In order to address this concern, First Solar created a recycling program, which ensures customers that the company will take back panels at the end of their useful life. The company officials said that the company can transform glass plates into finished modules in 2.5 hours, with a power efficiency exceeding 9 percent. In recent years, First Solar achieved low-cost mass production and respectable power output, and these characteristics boosted the market demands.
First Solar was founded in 1999, and has been focusing on improving its manufacturing process since, in order to reduce costs and enter the market. Over the past year, the number of contracts and investments has increased – according to company documents the production at its first plant in Perrysburg, OH, increased from a few hundred kilowatts of modules per year in the early years to 75 megawatts today. Last year, the company closed a deal to supply a 40-megawatt solar-panel farm in Germany that will be one of the largest in the world. Energy production on this site is expected to hit the 100-megawatts bar in the future. Currently, a third plant is under construction in Malaysia. Last month the company announced that it signed long-term contracts with European and Canadian customers, supplying 685 megawatts of modules worth $1.28 billion.
First Solar is now working with German renewable-energy developers such as Juwi Solar, who chose to use the company’s modules in its 40-megawatt solar park in Saxony. The company continues to improve its manufacturing process, and according to Chip Hambro, First Solar Chief Operating Officer, is expecting to cut its price for a watt of module to less than $1.25 after further improving the modules’ power output.
The race towards a practical and cheap power solution has begun. “PrimeStar Solar“, another start-up company that was founded by Ken Zweibel, former director of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), succeeded in developing laboratory CdTe based solar cells with efficiency of 16.5%. However, Zweibel said that in order for firms like First Solar to demonstrate a truly competitive alternative, prices need to decrease further.