First Solar boasts world-record solar cell

The prices of solar panels are falling fast, and that’s putting enormous pressure on manufacturers to cut costs and improve the amount of power solar cells can convert from sunlight. Thin film solar leader First Solar (s FSLR) says it’s even gotten a world record out of its latest efficiency developments, and on Tuesday the company boasted a 17.3 percent efficient solar cell.

The test cell exceeds the previous record of 16.7 percent for a solar cell made of cadmium-telluride set by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2001. The new record is critical not for bragging but for showing solar panels made with cadmium-telluride cells can have a longer presence in the market than previously expected.

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.

The Arizona company has been hailed as the lowest-cost solar panel manufacturer in the industry for some years now. Producing panels more cheaply than others is the key advantage for First Solar, especially when its solar panels aren’t as efficient as most others in the market. During the first quarter of this year, the company produced panels with 11.7 percent efficiency at $0.75 per watt.

Competition is intense

The majority of the solar panels sold today are made with silicon, and they generally have efficiencies a few percentage points above First Solar’s, which is not made with silicon. Although the silicon panels cost more to make, they also can command higher prices.

The most efficient silicon solar panel on the market today is the recently launched 20 percent panel made by SunPower. The SunPower panel contains cells that can do 22.4 percent efficiency. When cells are assembled into a panel, they don’t all perform the same, hence the lower panel efficiency figure. Plus, the panel efficiency includes the frame area where there are no cells.

SunPower and fellow silicon solar panel makers are eager to improve their products’ efficiencies as well, particularly given that silicon solar panel prices have fallen more than half in the past two years. In the last six weeks alone, the prices have fallen by 15 percent, according to IMS Research. The average price was close to $1.80 per watt in the first quarter of this year, and it’s reached below $1.40 per watt, IMS said.

Two big developments have caused the price to fall quickly: the declines of government subsidies in the world’s two largest markets, Germany and Italy, and the resulting piling up of solar panels because of the cut in demand. The cuts in subsidies, which are government-set solar power electricity prices that utilities must pay, have forced solar panel manufacturers and their component suppliers to lower how much they charge for their goods, or else their customers wouldn’t see any good profit in investing and building solar energy projects.

Solar panel makers have always known that they need to improve their products’ efficiencies. The quick price decline makes it more urgent for them to do it faster, if possible. Several large solar cell and panel makers have turned to technologies such as the silicon ink by Innovalight. The silicon ink has enabled Innovalight customers to boost their cells’ efficiencies by around 0.8 percentage point or more. That ability attracted the attention of DuPont, which just bought Innovalight for an undisclosed price.

Demonstrating that it can push the limits of efficiencies in cells made by its production equipment is important for First Solar to compete for many more years to come. Solar cell records are meant to show an achievable target, but they don’t convey how long it might take for the manufacturer to reach that efficiency at scale. Those records also refer to the best their holders can produce at a given time, not necessary what they can manufacture consistently in high volumes.

First Solar said it expects to boost the efficiency of its market-ready solar panels from 11.7 percent now to 13.5-14.5 percent by the end of 2014.

Photos courtesy of First Solar