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Published on February 23rd, 2016 | by Guest Contributor


First Solar Achieves New Conversion Efficiency World Record For CdTe Solar PV Cells

February 23rd, 2016 by  

Originally published on Sustainnovate.
By Henry Lindon


A new conversion efficiency world record for cadmium-telluride solar photovoltaic cells has been achieved by First Solar, according to a press release published a few hours ago. The new world record conversion efficiency of 22.1% was certified at the Newport Corporation’s Technology and Applications Center PV Lab.

The achievement of the new record means that First Solar, a 2015 Zayed Future Energy Prize finalist (Panasonic was the winner in that Large Corporation category), is still on track with its research roadmap — which projected the achievement of a 22% conversion efficiency by the end of 2015.

The new record-holding cadmium-telluride (CdTe) thin-film solar cell was created at First Solar’s Perrysburg, Ohio, manufacturing factory and Research & Development Center, utilizing only materials and processes suitable for mass production (commercial-scale production).

The achievement of the new conversion efficiency record marks the 9th “substantial update to CdTe record efficiency” since the year 2011.

“We are tracking very closely to a technology roadmap we first presented in 2013 and revised upward in March 2014,” stated Raffi Garabedian, First Solar’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO).

“At that time, we said we’d hit a 22% research cell efficiency milestone by the end of 2015. We’ve delivered on that promise. The accomplishment validates our continued confidence in CdTe as a superior photovoltaic (PV) material that combines cost effectiveness, reliability and high performance. In recent years and based on our research cell progress, we’ve improved the efficiency and energy density of our mass produced commercial PV modules at a rate at least 3 times faster than our multi-crystalline silicon (Si) competitors. We fully expect to further separate ourselves from the pack in coming years.”

The new record has already been documented in the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) “Best Research-Cell Efficiencies” reference chart. (SunPower’s new record for commercial solar PV panels is not in that chart.)

For more on First Solar’s thin-film PV advantage, watch this video:

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  • milliamp

    For those that don’t know First Solar has been winning grid scale PV contacts left and right. In 2015 they predicted they would be under $1/watt fully installed by 2017 and seem to be on track.

    Thin film panels like CdTe were always cheap but they were never efficient enough to be worth it and now First Solar is nearing the same efficiency with thin film as residential panels are getting with silicon.

    Another important factor is in hot desert climates there is an efficiency loss due to the high heat. CdTe is less impacted by these extreme heat than silicon panels and this climate is typical of the kinds of places grid scale solar farms are installed. This means in real world conditions for solar farms First Solar has a huge lead.

    The difference between 20% efficiency and 21% efficiency is not insignificant. It’s the difference between a panel being 300 watts or 315 watts. Perhaps more importantly it might mean the 2-3% efficiency margin silicon panels shipping today have over First Solar and CdTe is now even narrower.

    Here is a (marketing) diagram from First Solar explaining the efficiency difference at different operating tems:

    These guys are standing up huge 500MW grid scale solar farms and pretty soon they’ll be doing it at $1/watt. A 500 MW plant that would have cost into the billions only a few years ago will soon be a $500 million dollar project instead. They aren’t popular for residential panels but it’s still a big deal and good momentum.

    The other important thing that happened is I’m pretty sure PV (Photovoltaics) have now passed solar thermal (mirrors heating water) as the cheaper option for grid scale solar farms. It’s exciting stuff because now these massive hundreds of million dollar or billion dollar grid scale contracts are helping fund R&D to do things like boost efficiency by 1% here and there 🙂

    If we ever decide it’s suddenly worth it to put panels on cars or in roofing shingles thin film is likely to be the tech we use to do it. Lots of people said cost reduction in silicon panels would make thin film panels obsolete before they could get efficient enough to be worth while and basically First Solar has proven them wrong. They do appear to have carved out a pretty successful niche.

    • onesecond

      Yes, they are successful with their CdTe technology. But they are still using Cadmium, which turns people off. It might not be much per cell, but if the whole world would do it, there would be still quite a lot of Cadmium going around. I don’t even know what Telluride is doing. So I hope that Silicon will remain the dominant technology. How much better can it get than rock and sand?

      • Jens Stubbe

        Cadmium usage is less than for a standard rechargeable NiCd AA battery per module and still going down. Telluride is a very finite resource but the usage per produced kWh has gone down tremendously. First Solar has a wide variety of solar technologies including Silicon technology so they can switch if the supply of materials become troublesome.

        The projected efficiency limit is above 30% and 30% is projected to be reached in 2023.

        If they manage to perfect the deposition evenness they can thin the layer further and achieve a much lower materials usage combined with a faster deposition rate and higher plant utilization. First Solar is in a good position to continue with CdTe.

        The wind majors expect to cut offshore cost by 40% before 2020 and onshore also by 40% but first by 2025 but can probably do better if forced by stronger PV competition.

      • JamesWimberley

        It’s Tellurium, and I don’t know what it does either.

        • neroden

          Most semiconductors are two-material (for instance, Gallium Arsenide). Silicon is special.

        • onesecond

          I’m German and somehow I thought Tellurium would have a different name in English, my bad.

      • Ronald Brakels

        Cadmium is bad, mmmkay, but cadmium telluride can be eaten without harm. I don’t recommend eating it, but if you do, no harm should come to you unless you like break your teeth or get preforated by sharp pieces. And I quote from somewhere, “Current CdTe modules pass the U.S. EPA’s Toxicity Characteristic
        Leaching Procedure (TCLP) test, designed to assess the potential for
        long-term leaching of products disposed in landfills.” So, pretty mild compared to say, gasoline or fly ash. Or even ash that isn’t made from flies.

        • onesecond

          Cadmium has still to be mined, transported and processed to make CdTe, so there are a lot of possibilities to spread it around I would assume and I would prefer a technology that doesn’t have this problem.

    • S Herb

      I don’t understand solar shingles. For an installation of several kW you must be dealing with high voltages, or lots of heavy bus-bars, or lots of micro-inverters. The rooftop pictures never show these.

  • ADW

    Nice to see on going progress, given that they actually sell a product in volume that is not too far behind the current record is even better.

    A chart I would love to see is Efficiency vs $per Watt. I expect we would only see shipping product, all “research lab only” would fall off. Then you have a good idea of where we are really for options.

    Thin Film vs Silicon vs Concentrated PV.
    If Silicon is $X.xx per watt 19% and Thin Film is $Y.yy per watt 20%, now I can compare.

    • Riely Rumfort

      We need cross parameter charts like what you suggest.
      We also other than price per watt vs type need an efficiency loss over time variable, with a standardized 60 year span output at 1500irradiance hours to decide kWh over lifespan.
      This way the true price per kWh is revealed.
      The global market requires this more than any advance to the panels themselves.

    • Matt

      Yes, but then you get into how do you price. Just the panel? Thin need less mounting and CPV needs concentrate hardware, include that? In which country/market?

      • ADW

        I would start simple: Panels only,

        Maybe take two views, take a homeowner scale 3, 5, 8 kW
        And a commercial scale 250 – 500 – 1000 MW

        You could grid this out and have rows for countries
        US, Aussie, Germany, etc.

    • milliamp

      A useful metric that sort of tracks this is “levelized cost of electricity” or LCOE. This is how power sources are typically measured. There is some data on LCOE on wikipedia but the pricing provided on that page is very far behind for some reason.

      Some of the figures given in various countries are from 2007.

  • Joseph Dubeau


  • Zorba

    Well, I found the article interesting – that chart is great. I find the different records of interest given the varying cost and operational parameters between the different types of PV cell.

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  • omar

    Where is Tina ?

  • Marion Meads

    There are a million qualifications for these solar efficiency world records so there are a million possible world records breaking everyday, but in fact the only real world record for producing electricity from solar radiation falling on specified total area is only 46%.

    Yet we continue the dismal progress of announcing world records at 1% overall efficiency because it was from a molecule we never thought of before, or from certain manufacturing process or other yada yada qualifications. Yeah, we broke the world record for a certain molecular category, and we have achieved a 999% jump in efficiency, but of course the overall efficiency increased from 0.001% to 0.999%, not even 1% to be practical.

    • Frank

      You are right that some of those records are acedemic, but this particular one is not. ” utilizing only materials and processes suitable for mass production” from a company that shipped nearly 3GW of pannels last year. That means that the odds of this affecting the future efficiency and cost/watt of their modules is very high, making this one of the technologies which is increasingly competitive with fossil fuels. Price matters.

      • Jens Stubbe

        Even though the efficiency of concentrated PV is up in the high forties then the on system basis is in the high thirties because of optical losses.

        First Solar utilizes single axis trackers as a standard now and might move to two axis trackers in the future because it is of vital importance to achieve a high capacity factor to lower grid integration for First Solar’s utility customers.

        The CPV market can take of again because there are a number of technologies that can make the production of mirrors cheaper and possibilities to combine CPV with CSP (Concentrated Solar Power). CSP can store power as heat and is this respect semi dispatchable, which lowers grid integration cost. Also there are good prospects for developing more efficient CPV cells and technologies that can keep the optics clean and in pristine working order throughout lifetime as well as for lowering installation costs for trackers.

    • Folatt

      Clean Technica should really do an article explaining the chart.

      From the little knowledge I have I look mainly at:

      – Red Diamond White (currently at the bottom)
      – Red Circle Yellow
      – Green Circle Yellow
      – Blue square

      Because those are the ones I know for certain are important.

      The purple ones are too expensive and are mainly used in spacecraft, if they are used at all, because I don’t know if any of the X-junction ones and concentrators are used.

      Same goes for all the blue ones, so I choose to look at the blue square one to be on the safe side and consider that one the one that’s ubiquitously sold everywhere for decades. It’s the one with the “ugly” blue-black panels. People think it has reached it’s maximum in terms of efficiency, so if any other contenders have a larger maximum, we could see a revolution in solar panel production.

      Then there is green circle yellow, which is the thin film one and thus bendable. This one has become Blue square’s rival somewhere in either the 90’s or 00’s, then fell out recently, but now is back with a vengeance so to speak.

      Meanwhile Red Circle Yellow just crawled out of an egg and already is inches away from the front runners. Will it become commercial? Will it be cheap?

      Last but not least is Red Diamond White. You might wonder why anyone would care about the one at the bottom, but it’s the only one that’s both cheap and able to reach above and beyond all the others, even the purple ones.

      • Matt

        Yes that chart was way way too much information, without at least a page of translation. All I really see is that some forms have stabilized, not much change since 2000, or even many dots. And other are still improving, but not idea on which matter in which market segments.

        • milliamp

          I agree that some context with a rundown of various technologies and efficiencies would be a pretty interesting read.

          Things like which mono vs poly vs thin film panels are shipping in volume and what their efficiencies are from various manufacturers as well as cost/watt for the panel.

          Some context on where things currently seem to be headed would be useful too.

          This would require some work, like writing a research paper but a lot of the data on panels/efficiency/pricing is available from wholesale panel distributors so it’s not terribly secret. It’s only a matter of aggregating the data to provide context.

          I try to keep notes on these things as I figure them out but they are far from complete and I don’t know of very many references that are actually useful along these lines.

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