Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Big News: First Solar Makes Big Efficiency Breakthrough

The Holy Grail in solar panel manufacturing is to make a low-cost, high efficiency panel.  Already a low-cost producer, America's First Solar has made a solar efficiency breakthrough for its thin film solar cell that jumps its efficiency of converting sunlight to power from 11.7% to 17.3%.  This is an enormous jump in an industry where cell efficiency improves typically about 0.5% per year.

The making of solar panels is intensely competitive business that is going through a shakedown with General Electric entering the business this year and small companies like Solyndra and Evergreen bankrupting.  First Solar is America's largest solar panel manufacturer and one of the world's top ten.  It is also one of the most innovative PV panel makers that has pushed its cost down to 73 cents per watt.

A 73 cents per watt, 17.3% efficiency solar panel competes well with Chinese manufacturers and most importantly produces electricity at a price equivalent to fossil fuels without tax credits.  First Solar states that it has about a "dozen changes" that it will be making in its production processes to bring this breakthrough to the market.

Unlike most PV panel makers, First Solar makes a thin film and not crystalline silicon solar panel. Thin film solar cell panels use less materials and are cheaper but have been at least 50% less efficient at converting sunlight to power than crystalline silicon cell panels.  See for more discussion about the differences. 

First Solar's efficiency breakthrough for thin film means that it has closed the efficiency gap with the most efficient crystalline silicon panels on the market to about 10%, while retaining the cost advantages of thin film.

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