First Solar beats its own solar cell record, again

First Solar cell record

First Solar has been intensely focused on increasing the efficiency of its solar cells over the last few years, ever since it realized it could lose its competitive edge big time if it failed to do so. The bellwether solar company, which makes cells from the material cadmium-telluride, on Tuesday announced a new world record for its cadmium-telluride cell that shows the company will remain a dominant player for many more years.

First Solar’s researchers created a lab cell that can convert 21 percent of the sunlight that hits it into electricity, which is an improvement from the 20.4 percent record cell they achieved in February this year. The latest milestone puts cadmium-telluride ahead of the emerging material copper-indium-gallium-arsenide (CIGS), which is a thin film material that once attracted billions of dollars in venture capital but hasn’t lived up to its promise.

First Solar's Agua Caliente Plant, image courtesy of First Solar.

First Solar’s Agua Caliente Plant, image courtesy of First Solar.

“This is a fantastic achievement on the part of Raffi Garabedian and his team,” said First Solar CEO, Jim Hughes, during a call to discuss the company’s second quarter earnings on Tuesday. Garabedian is the Arizona company’s chief technology officer.

First Solar, which also develops solar power plants, aims to boost the cell efficiency record to 22 percent by the end of 2015, Hughes said. World record cells are typically created in labs, and building a lab cell is far different than making millions of cells in a factory at scale. A company usually takes several years if not longer to figure out how to mass produce cells that could achieve that record number.

Hughes noted that First Solar’s new record exceeds the 20.4 percent record for multi-crystalline silicon solar cells that was set in 2004. Silicon cells dominate the market today, and Hughes was making the point that multi-crystalline silicon solar cell researchers haven’t made headway there for a decade now. The world record for mono-crystalline silicon solar cells, the type of technology made famous by SunPower, is still ahead at 25 percent.

What’s the big deal?

A cell’s efficiency is one of the key factors for determining how much solar electricity will flow from a solar panel and, therefore, how much money a manufacturer and a solar power project owner will make. Solar cell makers have always known that efficiency plays a big role in staying ahead of the competition. But that hasn’t always been an important focus that has been matched by R&D spending.

In fact, First Solar once exemplified that. The company climbed to become the No. 1 solar panel maker in the world years ago mostly because it was so efficient at mass producing solar panels and building big factories to drive down costs, even if those solar panels weren’t as efficient as its silicon rivals’.  It was producing 11 percent panels in 2009 while most of the silicon solar panels were doing a few percentage points higher.

But then there was a rise of competitors from China that also focused on building huge factories to lower production costs. A glut of solar panels on the market in recent years, eroded First Solar’s competitive edge.

FirstSolarpanel1

So First Solar decided to shut down its CIGS lab toward the end of 2011, spent the following year doing some soul searching, made key management changes and declared during a company’s annual gathering of investors and analysts in 2013 that “technology leadership remains a core competency and key to the company’s success.”  The company bought GE’s cadmium-telluride technology and eliminated its biggest rival in the process.

First Solar also bought a silicon solar startup, TetraSun, last year in order to compete in markets that SunPower and other silicon solar companies have long dominated: the rooftop. More efficient solar panels can be desirable for a rooftop, which comes with limited space, because you won’t need as many panels to produce the same amount.

First Solar said it’s selling 14 percent efficient panels today. Most of the silicon solar panels are in mid to high teens. SunPower’s panels are over 21 percent.

What about TetraSun?

First Solar plans to begin mass producing TetraSun solar panels in Malaysia later this year and start selling the panels to Japan via distributor JX Nippon. Japan offers significant incentives for solar panel installations, and its denizens are skilled at maximizing the use of a tight space.

First Solar bought TetraSun because the startup was developing solar cells at a far higher efficiency than First Solar could mass produce with its cadmium-telluride.

While First Solar executives still count on TetraSun to help it attract new customers, they are realizing that the technology and marketing advantage that TetraSun offers is eroding, even if gradually, by their researchers’ ability to boost cadmium-telluride’s efficiency more quickly than before.

“There is no doubt that the success we’ve had on the (cadmium-telluride) front has taken the pressure off of moving TetraSun at a rapid pace,” Hughes told analysts on Tuesday. “The distance between the two technologies has unquestionably narrowed, and that has taken a little bit of  the sense of urgency out of it, quite frankly.”

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