Guest Post: Outlook for Thin Film Solar

Here is a report on the May 10 Andlinger Center talk by Dr. David Eaglesham, Chief Technology Officer of First Solar, Inc., maker of thin film solar panels. The reporter is an engineer friend of mine, Ed Sproles. A Penn State and MIT graduate, Ed worked for 23 plus years at Bell Labs and its successors, most recently as senior manager. Now he co-chairs the Power and Energy Society of IEEE. Thank you for this report, Ed! 

Eaglesham’s talk was interesting, both from a business and technical point of view. He says they are still breaking even, even at the low panel prices of today.  He says that Chinese are losing money at these prices, $6B in the last 9 months, but they have subsidies to carry them through. The expiration or elimination of subsidies for installed systems in Europe and US has caused the collapse of panel prices.  So far they have installed 5GW of capacity worldwide.

Eaglesham states that First Solar’s panel costs are lower based on their technology.  First Solar’s panels are based on cadmium telluride (CdTe) while all the Chinese and others are using silicon either single crystal or poly.  Presently CdTe panels are slightly lower in efficiency than silicone (Si) panels, but fundamentally cheaper to manufacture.  He believes that they can improve cell efficiency to equal or surpass Si, and presented his arguments based on the higher bandgap of CdTe and the comparatively smaller effect of temperature. So far, the highest efficiency that First Solar has achieved in the lab is 17.3%. The typical efficiency of operating systems is 13% at operating temperature which is around 70C in full sun.

His company has constructed systems in the 300MW range, and has a 600MW system under construction in southwest United States.  Systems this size cover square miles.
The business has been on a wild ride.  Two years ago they had huge margins and stock price bouncing around $150.  Today they have closed their German factory, are barely breaking even and the stock is around $16.  So, will they survive?  Eaglesham believes yes, based on their technology advantage.  Presently no one is replicating their design, and the barrier to entry is high. 

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