Clean Power

Published on February 27th, 2014 | by Tina Casey


First Solar Knocks It Out Of The Park With New Solar Cell Efficiency Record

February 27th, 2014 by  

This one really knocked our socks off. The last time we checked in on First Solar was almost exactly one year ago, when the company announced a world solar cell efficiency record of 18.7 percent for its thin film solar technology. Now it has crushed its own record, cracking the 20 percent barrier with a new world record of 20.4 percent.

That might sound like peanuts compared to conventional silicon solar cell efficiency, which has skyrocketed up into the 40 percent range, but solar conversion efficiency is only one factor in the installed cost of solar power.

Thin film has some key advantages including low manufacturing costs, and its characteristic flexibility and light weight lend it to both portable and stationary applications.

first solar sets new thin film solar cell efficiency record

Courtesy of First Solar.

Yet Another Solar Cell Efficiency Record For First Solar

First Solar got all its ducks in the water before making its new solar cell efficiency announcement. The 20.4 figure was confirmed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and certified at Newport Lab (not to be confused with a number of other facilities with similar names).

The new record is the result of a collaborative research partnership that First Solar formed last April with GE, which had previously set a record of 19.6 percent for its thin film solar cell.

Both companies had been developing thin film technology based on cadmium telluride (CdTe), a crystalline compound of the silvery bluish metal cadmium and tellurium, a brittle metalloid.

With the new announcement, First Solar Chief Technology Officer Raffi Garabedian really got up in the silicon solar cell industry’s grill. At 20.4 percent, the CdTe conversion efficiency matches that of multicrystalline silicon and here’s what Garabedian had to say about that:

We are demonstrating improvement in CdTe PV performance at a rate that dramatically outstrips the trajectory of conventional silicon technologies, which have already plateaued near their ultimate entitlements. The synergy realized in our partnership with GE also demonstrates the value of our consistent and strong investment in R&D. The advanced technologies and processes we developed for this record-setting cell are already being commercialized and will positively impact performance of our future production modules and power plants.

For the record, we’re also following a company called Empa, which has been developing a sort of upside-down CdTe thin film solar cell that could eliminate a costly part of the manufacturing process. So far its CdTe cell is down in the 11 percent efficiency range so it still has some catching up to do.

We Built This Thin Film CdTe Solar Cell!

CdTe thin film has been a hot area of research partly because it is conducive to high volume commercial production, unlike some more efficient but more quirky and exotic materials.

According to NREL, off-the-shelf bulk cadmium telluride is readily available in the form of a powder that can be reconstructed into thin film form. The relative simplicity of the compound is another plus.

NREL has been working with industry partners since 1994 to addressing the key challenges involved in ramping up thin film technology to commercial viability through its Thin Film Photovoltaic Partnership Project, which counts First Solar among its partners.

At the manufacturing end, those challenges include the development of buffer layers that can tolerate the high heat required to deposit CdTe onto a substrate. NREL has also been instrumental in developing an understanding of the fail factors in CdTe solar cells, which is a necessary first step to engineering more durable and long-lasting devices.

First Solar’s relationship with NREL dates at least as far back as 2003. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s the Bush Administration.

All together, thanks to those partnerships the US thin film industry grew from a manufacturing capacity of just 10 MW in 2003 to a whopping 250 MW by the time President Bush completed his second term in office, in 2008.

However, cross-party support for foundational solar R&D at the presidential level hasn’t stopped Republican leadership in Congress from trying to kick the legs out from under First Solar during the Obama Administration.

In one of many investigations that appear to have gone nowhere, in 2011 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) accused First Solar of not being innovative enough to qualify for Energy Department loan support, although he was not shy about requesting funds through the same loan program for a campaign contributor.

On the other hand, there seems to be a pro-solar movement bubbling up among the Republican rank and file, as property owners across all party lines cotton to the idea of harvesting — and in many cases, selling — their own solar power, so stay tuned for more on that.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Rick Dickinson

    Why is First Solar focusing on using minerals that are either environmentally harmful (cadmium) or so rare they’ll be gone before these things ramp up production (tellurium)?

  • Wayne Williamson

    Sorry guys, for them to state that efficientcy are in the 40 percecent range is just silly…”That might sound like peanuts compared to conventional silicon solar cell efficiency, which has skyrocketed up into the 40 percent range, but solar conversion efficiency is only one factor in the installed cost of solar power.”

    • Wayne Williamson

      Looking back over this, maybe they were referring to the 3 junction cells for the 40 percent. Thanks Mike for posting the chart…

  • Shiggity

    It is quite impressive but crystalline efficiencies are rising even faster and putting pressure on the thin film guys right now.

  • sault

    The 20.4% efficiency is at the cell-level. Actual production modules are running a bit lower. From the First Solar press release:

    “First Solar has continued to transfer its success in the R&D lab into its commercial modules, increasing its average production module efficiency to 13.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013, up 0.6 percent from 12.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012. The company’s lead line was producing modules with 13.9 percent average efficiency at the end of 2013.”
    So while things are improving, they have a long way to go to catch up to silicon modules.

    • If you look at low-cost Chinese monocrystalline panels, they are at roughly 16%. So 14 vs 16 is not that big a gap. With higher efficiencies already in the lab, it might be very well they can bridge the gap in the coming years.

    • Chris Johnson

      NEW YORK–(BUSINESS WIRE)– First Solar, Inc. (Nasdaq: FSLR) today announced it has set a world record for cadmium-telluride (CdTe) photovoltaic (PV) module conversion efficiency, achieving a record 17.0 percent total area module efficiency in tests performed by the U.S. Department of Energy’sNational Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The new record is an increase over the prior record of 16.1 percent efficiency, which the company set in April 2013. This announcement comes weeks after First Solar announced it achieved a world record in CdTe research cell efficiency of 20.4 percent.

  • mds

    “That might sound like peanuts compared to conventional silicon solar cell efficiency, which has skyrocketed up into the 40 percent range”

    No this is not correct. Some multi-layer PV cells used in CPV systems are over-40% efficient. Multi-layer PV cells used for CPV are not made with silicon. Silicon PV records are in the mid-20% range. This is what makes the Si, CdTe, CIGS PV race so interesting, they continue to be close competitors. …although you are correct that silicon PV does have some efficiency advantage in direct sunlight.

    Please refer to this chart and correct in your article:

    Cleantechnica article about this chart here:

    Thanks, mike

    • And note that CdTe does better in heat. I have quite an interesting presentation coming on that.

      • mds

        I was not aware of that. I’m looking forward to reading this one. CIGS does better than Silicon PV in diffuse light from cloud cover or fog. Is this true for CdTe as well?

      • mds

        I was not aware of this. I’m looking forward to reading. CIGS does better than silicon PV with diffuse light in cloud cover or fog. Is this also true for CdTe?

  • Michael Berndtson

    Nobody likes that guy (me), who can barely put a sentence together, being a pedant in the comments section of a tech blog. But as a baseball fan (Go White Sox! – Cubs suck!!!), I’m confused on your post setup sentence:

    “First Solar got all its ducks in the water…”

    There’s “ducks in a row” meaning a person has his/her stuff together before venturing forward on a task. And there’s the baseball-ism “ducks on the pond” meaning there’s runners on second and third or maybe loaded and a homerun hitter is coming to bat.

    I’m sure there’ll be some Yankee fan, with little to no interest in renewable energy, come on this site and reply to my comment in ALL CAPS that its “ducks in the water” because, well, New York City says so and Chicagoans are idiots.

    • Haha, don’t ask me — not my forte. But interested to read some responses.

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