one of this article, we talked with a-Si equipment
manufacturer, Oerlikon Solar, which was recently purchased by
Tokyo Electric. Here in part two, we talk with two
heavy-hitters in the thin-film solar industry to hear their
thoughts about the future of thin-film PV and the future of their
First Solar (FSLR)–
Maker of Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) Thin-film; Developer of
First Solar (FSLR)
has robust plans for the future, according to David Erhart,
Marketing Communications Manager at the company.
Erhart explained that it is First Solar’s “thin-film technology
that takes a simple piece of glass and turns it into a complete
solar module in less than two and a half hours in a continuous
automated process,” that has fueled the company’s success so far.
To date, the company has more than 5 gigawatts of modules
installed worldwide and was the 1st company to break $1
per watt cost barrier, he said. It is currently
manufacturers its panels at a cost of less than $.75 per watt and
the company won’t stop there, according to Erhart. A
recently announced restructuring of First Solar should bring the
company’s average manufacturing to $0.70-$0.72 per watt in 2012,
below prior expectations of $0.74 per watt. In 2013 the company
estimates average module manufacturing costs will range from $0.60
to $0.64 per watt.
Erhart said that First Solar is the current world-record holder
for CdTe PV cell efficiency at 17.3 percent and PV module
efficiency at 14.4 percent, numbers that have been verified by the
National Renewable Energy Lab. The company plans to take
those efficiencies to scale. “We expect to take cadmium
telluride thin-film solar technology to levels that it has never
been before,” he said.
In addition to module manufacturing, First Solar has become the
world’s largest builder and operator of utility-scale power
plants. It boasts the “largest pipeline in the industry with more
than 2.7 GW of solar PV plants under construction or in
development with PPA,” Erhart said.
He pointed to three U.S. projects — the 290-MW Aqua
Caliente, the 550-MW Topaz Solar Farm and 550-MW Desert Sunlight
projects — as examples of some of the power plants that First
Solar is developing, which also happen to be among the largest PV
power plants under development in the world.
First Solar has now set its sights on the developing world, in
line with many other solar power players.
While acknowledging that markets can shift on a dime, Erhart said
“regardless of where the existing markets go, we want to invest in
what we call long-term sustainable markets.” That makes a
lot of sense when considering how the on-again, off-again
subsidies that are in place in Europe have really dominated market
“We don’t want to wake up every day dependent on these
subsidies,” said Erhart, explaining why the company is interested
in more stable markets such as “markets that have a need for
electricity, that have high irradiance, and have high costs of
electricity,” he said.
First Solar CFO, Mark Widmar, echoed the company’s expansion
plans in a conference call to investors. “Over the next couple of
year, we also intend to make progress in sustainable markets,” he
said. More details will be available during the company’s
first quarter earnings call, scheduled for early May, after this
article goes to press.
First Solar modules use “98 percent less semi-conductor material
than the semi-conductor materials required for traditional
crystalline silicon manufacturing processes,” said Erhart. That
has meant that the company has had a significant cost advantage
over the years, although GTM Research’s MJ Shaio points out that
the cost-advantage window is closing.
“Scores of thin-film silicon manufacturers, drawn by the pied
piper of propped poly prices, suddenly saw utilization rates
collapse and their low efficiency, very low cost product turn into
a very low efficiency, average cost product, evaporating any
competitive advantage they might once have had,” he said in his
In terms of competition, Erhart sees the “usual suspects” as
First Solar’s main rivals in the space. These are the crystalline
solar PV module makers below:
However, he explains that it is not always just other solar
companies that First Solar is in competition with: “When you are
going into these emerging markets to help them with their dire
energy needs, you are not necessarily competing with other solar
panel manufacturers, you are competing with other forms of
renewable energy,” he said. “In Saudi Arabia, for example, we are
competing primarily with diesel, which they would rather sell as
gasoline or petrochemicals than burn for their own domestic
And as a builder of power plants, the company also can go head to
head with “very large construction firms that have been building
power plants for a long period of time,” he said.
While those firms have a lot of experience, First Solar has a lot
to be proud of as well, according to Erhart. He said that
the company has the lowest balance of systems (BOS) costs in the
industry; an award winning safety record; and the fastest
installation velocity in the industry.
First Solar CFO Widmar echoed Erhart’s enthusiasm about the
company’s future. “Our captive pipeline shows that many of the
world’s most sophisticated renewable energy investors continue to
invest in projects using our technology, which is being deployed
in some of the largest sites in the world, under the toughest
desert conditions,” he said.
Other existing CdTe thin-film firms have not had quite the
success that First Solar has had so far. Abound Solar
recently announced plans to layoff 180 employees while it builds
its next-generation higher-efficiency module.
which acquired PrimeStar Solar last year, said it would be
building a 400-MW CdTe factory in Aurora Colorado. The
facility is under construction right now and GE has said that it
expects panels to come off the assembly line this year.
Solar Frontier, CIS Thin-Film Developer
With the exception of GE’s more recent entrance into the
thin-film market, Solar Frontier is the only major thin-film
player that has a huge parent company. Showa Shell Sekiyu K.K.
owns Solar Frontier and having such a wealthy parent company means
there is little doubt that Solar Frontier will be able to make
strides in the solar power industry.
“So far, it’s a good year for us,” said Greg Ashley, the
company’s Chief Operating Officer for the Americas. “Even
though global prices have stayed low, they pretty much stabilized
over the past few months,” he continued.
Solar Frontier manufactures copper indium selenium (CIS) solar
panels and has a 1-GW factory in Japan and several smaller
facilities in other areas of the world.
Ashely said that CIS has a few advantages over CdTe and a-Si
panels. “Our measured performance ratio is still higher than
CadTel,” he said. “I think the fact that we’ve stayed with a very
strong framed module, whereas most of the other thin-film folks
have gone to frameless, or stayed with frameless gives us some
installation/design flexibility that they don’t have,” he
“And our modules are slightly larger so the combination of the
frame and the larger size, we typically have lower BOS and are
easier to handle,” said Ashley.
Ashley said the company has its eyes set on Japan. “Demand
for us in Japan is exploding [as the country is] getting ready for
the new feed-in tariff,” he said.
Japan’s feed-in tariff is supposed to go online July 1 as the
country sets to aggressively pursue renewable energy as a result
of losing much of its nuclear power capacity. “So we are
positioned pretty well,” said Ashley.
Like the other executives we spoke to, Ashley echoed the market
shifts taking place. He said that for Solar Frontier, the
U.S. holds great potential. “The sun belt is probably going
to be, in the long run, the biggest market. Everyone expects it to
be,” he said. In addition, he said the company is doing business
in the Caribbean, and that it is “pursuing business in Hawaii and
we are also pursuing business in Latin America.”
But Japan is where it really plans to grow: “Japan is probably a
bigger, faster, easier growth market for us…but in the long run,
it’s all the sun belt countries, the developing countries,” he
With Shell as a parent company, Solar Frontier doesn’t have a lot
of trouble penetrating new markets. Shell has a long history
in the global energy markets said Ashley. “We’ve got a very
strong presence in a very large historical network of
relationships both with the private and public sector,” he said.
He said the company is “treated with respect” and “granted some
preferential access to the right types of opportunities with the
right types of companies, with the right types of partners” in the
emerging markets across the globe. For example, “we have EPC
partners with some of the larger players in India…same thing in
Thailand and Malaysia and other parts of the world,” he said.
To date, however, Solar Frontier is working on smaller projects
than its rival First Solar. Ashley said that for now, even
its utility projects are in the one to two-megawatt range. Except
of course for the 130-MW Catalina solar project, which is located
in Kern Coutnry, Calif. and being developed my enXco. Solar
Frontier shipped 30 MW of panels to the Catalina project in the
last quarter of 2011 and expects the project to be completed by
Like Oerlikon’s O’Brien and First Solar’s Erhart, Ashley believes
that PV module manufacturing pricing will remain in the one dollar
per watt range but “in this race to get to installed cost of one
dollar per watt, I think we are very far off from that,” he added.
Ashley said that the solar industry’s biggest problem right now
is the excess inventory that has built up, a problem that he
thinks could be resolved by the country that manufactured a lot of
“Actually the market in China itself will have a big influence,”
he said. Ashley thinks China will begin soon to stimulate its own
internal demand and that will reduce the impact that oversupply is
having on the market.
In addition to Solar Frontier, other CIGS players include
MiaSole, Avancis, Global Solar, Nanosolar, Sotecture and Solibro,
which is owned by Q-Cells. Q-Cells filed for bankruptcy in
early April, leaving the fate of Solibro up in the air.
But Solar Frontier’s Ashley remains incredibly optimistic about
thin-film. He said he believes that “thin-film is
competitive with crystalline even at the lowest prices” and “not
just our technology.”
“There’s going to be more thin-film manufacturers and it’s good
that there are and it’s good that the existing ones continue to
grow and thrive,” he said. “I’m very hopeful for all my
competitors, as well as my own company.”
GTM Research forecasts that global thin-film production and total
market value will dip below $3 billion in 2012, it’s latest report
projects an up-tick in thin film demand in 2015/16, where the
total market, according to GTM will recover to $7.6 billion.
GTM believes that industry’s rebound will be predicated on the
continued, though muted, success of First Solar and the execution
of efficiency, yield and scale roadmaps from other thin film
In particular, GTM predicts strong growth in the
copper-indium-gallium-diselenide (CIGS) technology segment,
forecasting production at 4 GW in 2016. Even though in 2011, Solar
Frontier is the dominant supplier with roughly 400 MW of CIGS PV
shipments GTM said that companies like MiaSolé and TSMC
could emerge in the next few years as top thin-film suppliers with
cost of manufacturing approaching $0.50 per watt. Venture
investments in CIGS surpassed $305 million in the past two
quarters, albeit at depressed valuations. Coupled with increased
interest from global industrial conglomerates on the sidelines,
GTM Research predicts major acquisitions in the near future.
Jennifer Runyon is managing
editor of RenewableEnergyWorld.com
and Renewable Energy World North America magazine.