First Solar: Enabling Sustainable Photovoltaics
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First Solar: Enabling Sustainable Photovoltaics

Mark Widmar, CEO, First SolarMark Widmar, CEO ‘The Glass Genius’ was the name given to Harold McMaster by Fortune Magazine, as he was one of the greatest experts in tampered glass technology. Owing to his profound interest in solar technology, McMaster started experimenting with glass to integrate photovoltaic materials using different methods during the 1980s. He aimed to develop low-cost, thin film cells at a large scale to capitalize on opportunities in the solar energy production market. After experimenting with amorphous silicon and then with cadmium telluride (CdTe)-based photovoltaic (PV) modules, McMaster founded a company, Solar Cells in 1990. Following a tumultuous financial plight during its early years, the company was sold to True North Partners, a venture capital firm in 1999, which later rebranded the company, naming it First Solar, following the acquisition.

The Arizona-based First Solar started manufacturing commercial products and PV solar modules using CdTe thin film technology in 2002. In its initial years, the company produced solar modules with a lower efficiency of around 7 percent gradually which was scaled up to 18.2 percent for CdTe thin film solar modules and 22.1 percent for cells. Today, it is the largest PV module producer in the world with a capacity of more than 13.5 gigawatts (GW).

While most solar panel companies manufacture their products from silicon, First Solar produces and sells thin film solar panels using CdTe as its material of choice. The type of solar technology it manufactures and installs for utility-scale solar projects makes the company unique. First Solar has developed, financed, engineered, constructed, and currently operates many of the world’s largest grid-connected PV power plants. The firm is referred to as ‘vertically integrated’ which means it is involved in every phase of solar installations, from producing solar panels to delivering operations and maintenance (O&M) services for those installations. The O&M services are designed to fit a plant owner’s sourcing strategy, infrastructure, and level of expertise in the solar industry. These services focus on supervising, controlling, and optimizing a plant’s performance in real time. They also minimize downtime, reduce equipment failures, and protect asset value.

The First Solar team’s experience across the solar value chain reduces the risk while delivering more reliable, dependable, and cost-effective solutions for their customers. “I look forward to the opportunity to lead First Solar at this exciting time and build upon the success of the past.

I also look forward to continuing to work with our board, management team, and associates to leverage our enhanced technology and operational strength, establish deeper customer intimacy, and to capitalize on industry growth,” says Mark Widmar, CEO, First Solar.

The type of solar technology First Solar manufactures and installs for utility-scale solar projects makes it unique

Addressing the Growing Utility Demands

Technology developments in solar PV energy have resulted in higher efficiencies and lower costs, making solar energy a competitive alternative to traditional energy sources. First Solar is leading the way with its utility-scale solar PV projects in providing clean, affordable, and reliable solar energy to meet the growing energy demands. The company undertakes utility-scale projects that supply up to 10 percent more energy in real-world conditions and stable grid integration. The company provides a fully integrated solution to bring projects from conception to construction including project siting and permitting, financing, market development, as well as securing power purchase agreements (PPAs). With several GW of First Solar’s sophisticated thin film technology connected to the grid, the utility customers benefit from advanced plant control features that help actively stabilize the electricity grid. The company invests more in R&D leveraging the technology to increase its energy yield rapidly and lower levelized cost of electricity (LCOE). It delivers an LCOE that supplies power during peak energy consumption for energy consumers against fuel-price volatility.

Based on advanced thin-film CdTe technology, First Solar manufactures Series 4 and Series 6 solar modules that generate more usable energy per nameplate watt with lesser environmental impact than any other technology. Using the series 4 modules, the solar PV plants enjoy better energy yield, reliability, and durability. Generating up to 8 percent more energy than conventional crystalline silicon solar modules, First Solar’s Series 4 PV modules deliver superior performance and reliability to the utility customers. The Series 6 module sets a new industry benchmark for reliability, design, and environmental performance while generating more energy per module than competing technologies. The Series 6 module is the next-generation technology embedded in a unique manufacturing process that ensures unparalleled quality control for every component of the module.

First Solar is one of the only five module producers in the world to pass Atlas 25+, Thresher, and TUV Long-term Sequential Test—the tests for PV module qualification. The firm is committed to sustainable PV manufacturing, responsible construction practices, and minimizing the environmental impacts of its products across the lifecycle, from raw material sourcing through to end-of-life recycling.

The company’s state-of-the-art recycling facilities are operational in the U.S., Germany, and Malaysia, with a scalable capacity to accommodate high volume recycling as more modules reach the end of their 25+ year life. The recycling process recovers up to 90 percent of materials that can be reused while producing new modules or glass products.

The company’s solar PV modules deliver an economically attractive alternative to fossil-fuel electricity generation today. First Solar’s mission is to create long-lasting value by enabling a world powered by clean, affordable solar electricity. Its utilization of thin film technology displaces 89-98 percent of greenhouse gas emissions when replacing energy yielded by conventional generation. The thin film CdTe technology has approximately half the carbon footprint of conventional crystalline silicon PV modules.

"First Solar is one of the only five module producers in the world to pass Atlas 25+, Thresher, and TUV Long-term Sequential Test—the tests for PV module qualification"

Making Successful Efforts

The firm will build a 58MW (AC) PV power plant using its next-generation large-area Series 6 module mounted on single-axis trackers for Facebook’s data center in Oregon. Facebook intends to use renewable energy for all of its electricity consumption by 2020; hence, the project is expected to begin in late 2019 with commissioning due in late 2020. The company will provide operations and maintenance (O&M) services which will support the Facebook data center with 100 percent renewable energy. This collaboration is an example of how utilities and corporations work together to achieve economic benefits for their stakeholders and also promote renewable energy objectives. “By utilizing our business model that emphasizes a disciplined and balanced approach to growth, liquidity, and profitability, we are confident in our ability to deliver superior results to our shareholders,” mentions Widmar.

"Our satellite Internet has proven to be a reliable solution for businesses in remote locations where terrestrial connections are unavailable"

Recently in October, First Solar collaborated with Origis Energy USA for GA Solar 4 Project—a 200MW alternating current (AC) PV solar generation asset located in Georgia which is expected to be the largest solar power plant in the Southeastern US. All energy and renewable attributes of the project will be sold to Georgia Power through their Renewable Energy Development Initiative (REDI) program. The construction of this 2,000-acre project is expected to begin by November 2018 and will include more than half a million of First Solar’s advanced technology thin film solar modules on single axis tracker mounts. First Solar is looking forward to a close collaboration with Origis Energy on this project along with its successful completion and commissioning.

- Shikha Patra
    December 24, 2018