First Solar says that it transforms two-by-four-foot glass plates into ready-to-ship modules in 2.5 hours, with power efficiency exceeding 9 percent, up from about 7 percent in 2004. That combination, claims First Solar, has slashed the cost per watt from $2.94 in 2004 to $1.29 today–a period in which growing demand for high-grade silicon inflated the cost of producing silicon panels to between $2.50 and $3.00 per watt, or more.
German renewable-energy developers such as Juwi Solar, Gehrlicher Gruppe, and Blitzstrom began using First Solar modules in large rooftop installations and field-based solar parks in 2005. In February, Juwi Solar picked First Solar’s modules for its 40-megawatt solar park in Saxony; upon its completion in 2009, the park’s 550,000 First Solar modules will cover an area equal to 160 football fields.
At the Solar 2007 conference in Cleveland earlier this month, First Solar COO Chip Hambro said that the company anticipates slashing the price it charges for modules (as opposed to its manufacturing cost) from more than $2 per watt today to $1.25 per watt or less within five years. The company would do this largely by further boosting the modules’ power output.
Zweibel’s startup, PrimeStar Solar, based in Golden, CO, is also betting on higher efficiency. PrimeStar seeks to commercialize a more sophisticated module design developed at NREL, which holds the efficiency record for laboratory-made cells at 16.5 percent (compared with 14.5 percent for First Solar’s best lab cells). Zweibel says that cadmium telluride technology offers a “clear physical pathway” to cut the cost of solar energy from 15 to 30 cents per kilowatt hour today to 5 cents per kilowatt hour–just above the average cost of coal-fired power in the United States.
However, First Solar’s original plant in Ohio is now largely depreciated, meaning the loss of an economic benefit. As First Solar produces more from its new module plant in Germany and a third plant that’s under way in Malaysia, the company may have more work to do to deliver on its promise to cut its price for a watt of module to less than $1.25.