Production Line PVs “Model T” of Photovoltaics
In our continuing search for the company that will provide breakthrough price reductions in Photovoltaic cells, EcoWorld has discovered First Solar, (www.FirstSolar.com) based in Toledo, Ohio. If they live up to the rumors about them, First Solar Inc. may become the Ford Motor Company of photovoltaics. First Solar Inc., based in Toledo, may be the first company to actually mass produce photovoltaic panels. According to Pamela Ryan, First Solar’s Director of Communications, “First Solar has developed a high volume, low cost process for manufacturing photovoltaic modules that promises to be economically competitive with conventional energy alternatives.”
If that’s true, than first solar will have to get the installed price of photovoltaics down to about $6.00 per watt. If one assumes an average of eight “full-sun equivalent” hours of sunlight per day and a system lifetime of 30 years, fairly reasonable assumptions, $6.00 per watt installed equates to $.068 per kilowatt hour. Such a price is just under California Governer Gray Davis’s new long-term contracted prices for electricity, which are pegged at $.069 per kilowatt hour, and in the period from mid-2002 onward, after the current bottlenecks get fixed, that price will probably be on the high side for “conventional” sources of electricity. Why? Because coal power costs $.02 per kilowatt hour, and anybody who doesn’t think that’s going remain a big part of the USA’s energy mix is not reading the newspaper.
Can First Solar do it? If they manage this feat, it will mean they will have to sell photovoltaic panels at a factory wholesale price of well under $2.00 per watt, since inverters and other hardware, plus installation labor, will eat up at least $4.00 per watt, and that low figure for other costs will only be after great volumes and standardizations are achieved. The cheapest photovoltaics available in the US currently come from BP Solar and cost about $3.50 per watt at the factory gate. The cheapest photovoltaics in the world that we’ve ever heard of come from mainland China and run about $2.50 per watt wholesale.
First Solar officials were pretty careful with what they’d say when we interviewed by telephone last week, and their website doesn’t volunteer much, either. As Ryan put it “we are very sensitive to the fact that the solar industry has been particularly plagued with unfulfilled expectations over the years.”
The “break-through” technology that First Solar has developed relies on a “proprietary high-speed deposition process that deposits uniform semiconductor layers in a matter of seconds, with little material waste.” This means that First Solar may be the first photovoltaic manufacturer to actually utilize a non-stop production line. Every other photovoltaic manufacturer in the world still has to perform this crucial step in batches, which is much more costly and time-consuming.
To research First Solar based on their reputation among others in their industry, we talked with Steve Coonen, VP of Business Development at Atlantis Energy (www.AtlantisEnergy.com). Atlantis Energy builds “building integrated photovoltaics,” which means they convert raw solar panels into standard sized window and roof materials. In this value-added business Atlantis Energy needs to know who can supply them the best raw photovoltaic panels at the best price. Coonen was impressed with First Solar. “I’ve been to their factory a couple of times,” he said, “First Solar can do eight feet per minute to lay thin film in continuous motion. Other photovoltaic manufacturers are doing something like 8 feet per hour.” “They’ve got some ramping up to do,” he continued, “but this could be the real thing, they have UL approval and 4-10 year testing already done.”
The company’s roots date back to 1986, when Dr. Harold McMaster founded First Solar’s predecessor, Solar Cells Inc. McMaster had prior experince as the founder of Glasstech, Inc., one of the world’s leading manufacturers of glass bending and tempering systems. Building on this expertise, while at Solar Cells Inc. McMaster led development teams who created the technology that First Solar is now using to build a high volume commercial production facility.
|Toledo Mfg Centre|
First Solar’s photovoltaic semiconductor fabrication plant began commercial operations last January. They aren’t saying exactly when, but they claim “upon achieving full utilization, yields and targeted conversion efficiency, the facility will be capable of producing nearly 100 megawatts of photovoltaic panels per year.” When one considers that the PV output worldwide is currently about 300 megawatts per year, First Solar is poised to make an enormous impact on the world of solar electricity.
It is probably worth noting that in terms of photovoltaics making an impact on overall global energy supply, however, 400 megawatts is pretty small potatoes. Humanity consumed roughly 20,000 gigawatts (or gigawatt equivalents) of energy last year, meaning that if yearly photovoltaic production went up to 400 megawatts, that would represent about 2/1000ths of one percent of world energy consumption. EcoWorld estimates that the current total installed base of photovoltaics worldwide produces under 5 gigawatts of energy, meaning that to get PVs up to just one percent of world energy consumption would require the number of PVs in the world to increase by a factor of forty! Long, long, long way to go.
In 1999 First Solar was formed out of Solar Cells, Inc. to develop their pilot production line into the plant that now stands poised to take photovoltaics to a new level of cost-competitiveness. They are a majority-owned subsidiary of True North Partners, a private equity investment company.