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First Solar hits straps on efficiency drive

05 Aug 2015

Module conversion efficiency at the company's lead production line now averaging 16.2%.

Investors saw the stock price of leading thin-film photovoltaics exponent First Solar soar more than 15 per cent after the Arizona-headquartered company revealed a strong set of quarterly results including a marked increase in its cadmium telluride (CdTe) module conversion efficiencies.

CEO Jim Murphy revealed net income of $94.5 million on sales of $896.2 million for the three months to June, beating Wall Street’s estimates.

While that and an uptick in full-year sales guidance to between $3.5 billion and $3.6 billion will have pleased many and fueled the stock price reaction, the strong progress with conversion efficiency bodes well for the longer term. Murphy said that the ability to improve that key performance metric was setting it apart from the competition in the PV sector.

Average module conversion efficiency across the First Solar fleet now stands at 15.4 per cent – up from 14.7 per cent just three months ago, with plenty of headroom to improve. The company’s best-performing production line now averages 16.2 per cent, while First Solar’s researchers recently demonstrated a full-sized module with 18.6 per cent efficiency.

Noting that as a significant milestone, Murphy added: “With this latest achievement, we're clearly demonstrating that our CdTe technology is both a high-efficiency and a low-cost offering.” The 16.2 per cent figure should be matched on all First Solar’s production lines by the end of this year.

While next year will see more of a focus on fully utilizing production capacity, the efficiency drive will return in 2017 as more process improvements are rolled out. CTO Raffi Garabedian, who remains in that position despite a wider management shake-up at First Solar, is targeting module conversion efficiencies of 20 per cent on the production line by 2017.

15 per cent more power
The improvement to conversion efficiencies on the company’s lead production line means that the modules produced there now deliver 15 per cent more power than those made there a year ago.

That additional power looks likely to become increasingly advantageous in the US. The order books of First Solar and others are currently full as developers rush to complete PV projects before a cut in solar tax credits that is currently scheduled for the end of 2016. After that date the tax credit is likely to shrink, and business models for large-scale solar in the US could change dramatically.

Murphy and the First Solar team expect the higher CdTe module efficiency to become pivotal in the competition with multi-crystalline silicon modules, particularly in hot and humid locations like the south-east of the US.

The CEO said that with the US presidential race now starting to heat up, there was unlikely to be much progress made on issues that need plenty of bipartisan support – like tax credits for solar PV. But he added that the industry in the US was hoping to ensure a smooth transition after the end of the current tax credit period.

TetraSun ramp
Murphy also provided a short update on progress at the company’s TetraSun subsidiary, which is working on high-performance crystalline silicon cells rather than thin-film CdTe.

The division’s first manufacturing line is still being ramped up, while TetraSun products are going through a “very rigorous” qualification process for the lead customer, Murphy indicated.

“We're close to completing all of those activities,” the CEO told investors. “We will produce something on the order of 25 MW this year and then we'll continue to run that line next year.

“We have a number of conversations with a variety of customers under way, and our goal is to successfully operate that line, have very high yields, very high quality and deliver that product to a handful of customers over the course of next year.”

LASEROPTIK GmbHIridian Spectral TechnologiesOptikos Corporation SPECTROGON ABLaCroix Precision OpticsAlluxaBerkeley Nucleonics Corporation
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