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First Solar buys GE’s thin-film PV technology

06 Aug 2013

Move intended to accelerate improvements to cadmium telluride cell efficiency, but Colorado manufacturing facility will be scrapped.

First Solar, the world’s largest manufacturer of thin-film cadmium telluride (CdTe) photovoltaic cells and modules, has acquired the similar technology being developed by the energy and industrial giant GE.

In yet another sign of consolidation within the PV industry, the two US-headquartered firms agreed a stock deal valuing GE’s contribution at around $82 million. GE received 1.75 million shares in First Solar in exchange for the intellectual property as part of the deal, making it one of the company’s leading shareholders.

GE’s Global Research division recently set a new efficiency record for CdTe cells, with its mark of 19.6% beating First Solar’s previous world best of 18.7%. First Solar’s CEO James Hughes told an investor conference call to discuss the company’s latest financial quarter that GE’s cells were “quite distinct” from First Solar’s own, yet still compatible with the firm’s volume manufacturing process.

“GE has been working on the technology in parallel to us,” said Hughes. “We have been leap-frogging one another in terms of records, but we’ve been doing so with distinctly different approaches.”

Aurora site build-out “discontinued”
The deal with First Solar ensures that GE’s CdTe cell technology – initially developed at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) before being transferred to start-up firm PrimeStar Solar in 2007 – has a future.

That future had looked very uncertain last summer when GE, having acquired PrimeStar in 2011 and announced the construction of a manufacturing site in Aurora, Colorado, said it had put its build-out plans on hold for 18 months because of the problems in the solar industry.

The deal with First Solar, which will use its existing production sites to further develop the GE technology, means that work on the Aurora facility will now be stopped. The two firms will, however, collaborate on future CdTe technology development.

Meanwhile, First Solar revealed a sharp decline in both revenues and profit in its latest quarter, and also warned that its full-year result for 2013 would be significantly worse than previously expected – partly because of delays to large solar projects.

Hughes said that the company’s effort to target markets with high natural solar resource but without the traditional financial support from feed-in tariffs was now starting to bear fruit. In South Africa, for example, the company has lined up potential bookings of 853 MW.

“This is perhaps the best illustration to-date into progress that we're making in creating demand in sustainable markets, and gives us confidence in our ability to replenish our pipeline going out to 2016 and beyond,” said the CEO.

TetraSun plans
On the technology development side, First Solar has introduced a new back-contact design for its CdTe modules that is said to both improve initial conversion efficiency and maintain higher efficiency levels for a longer period than current products. Both factors are critical to the overall economic attractiveness of a PV investment.

Hughes also gave an update on First Solar’s TetraSun division, which is working on a low-cost, high-efficiency crystalline silicon cell technology. He said of the recent acquisition:

“Given the progress to date, we have moved into the planning stage for our first cell manufacturing line and expect to have product and line qualification in the second half of 2014, with initial shipments commencing at that time.”

Having raised nearly $430 million in a public offering of stock in June, the firm has plenty of cash to throw at the required technology development, and Hughes said that the capital investment details for this would be revealed during the firm's next earnings call in October.

"We believe that the combination of the two [CdTe and c-Si] technologies will allow us to cover the full spectrum of the solar photovoltaic market, both the utility scale and distributed generation segments," said the CEO.

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