40-Year Slog Through Solar Panel Wilderness Ends In Vindication…For The Robots

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When the topic turns to making a solar panel in the US, it’s easy to poke fun. After all, the Land of the Free dominated close to 100% of global solar manufacturing for decades after Bell Labs introduced the first practical solar cell in 1954, only to see the PV party screech to a stop-stop when the go-go 1980s hit. Japan took the lead, then China picked up the torch and it’s been virtual cricket chirps for major US solar makers ever since. One exception is the firm First Solar, and now that the Biden administration has turned up the heat on solar power it looks like all that hard work could be about to pay off.

Whatever Happened To Solar Panel Making In The Land Of The Free?

The heat came earlier this week in the form of the new Solar Futures Study from the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The study draws a roadmap for solar energy to account for 40% of the nation’s electric grid by 2035.

That prompted an outburst of skepticism. The target year of 2035 is just around the corner, and 40% is a long row to hoe considering that solar currently has a toehold of just 3%. The shaky state of affairs in the domestic solar manufacturing industry doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, either.

To be clear, First Solar is not the only solar panel manufacturer in the US. Our friends over at The Atlantic published a handy list of solar manufacturers back in 2018, after former President Trump imposed a new solar panel tariff that threw a monkey wrench into the whole domestic solar industry. They pointed out that there is actually a lot more making going on in the US than one might think.

However, The Atlantic also noted that most of the so-called domestic solar panel activity consists of assembling parts made overseas. Some of the companies on its list are also headquartered overseas, with branches in the US.

So, what happened? The US had a chance to restart its homegrown solar industry during the Bush administration after the turn of the 21st century, when the Energy Department’s Loan Programs Office initiated federal funding for a domestic solar firm called Solyndra.

I know, right? Remember them? The loan was ultimately approved at the beginning of the Obama administration, but Solyndra crashed and burned in 2011. The company was unable to compete against low-cost manufacturing in China and elsewhere, just like every other US firm with visions of stateside solar panel manufacturing dancing in its head.

A Real Solar Panel Maker In Real America, With Robots

Where were we? Oh right, practically the only holdout of any consequence has been First Solar. With R&D roots going back to the 1980s, First Solar is no mere assembler of parts. The company was founded in 1999 and it cemented a solar cell research relationship with the US Department of Energy back in 2003.

CleanTechnica has been following First Solar’s ups and downs since the early years of the Obama administration. One notable breakthrough occurred in 2018, when First Solar announced plans to expand its existing footprint in Ohio with a second thin film solar manufacturing facility in Lake Township.

Thin film solar is something of a wallflower because its conversion efficiency is generally lower than conventional silicon solar cells. However, the combination of inexpensive materials, lower manufacturing costs, and a wider range of application can tip the scales.

Here’s what we said in 2018:

“Now that the dust is settling down from President* Trump’s new PV tariff, it looks like we have a winner: US-based First Solar hopes to open a gigantic new 1.2 gigawatt factory in Ohio to roll out its Series 6 thin film PV technology. “Roll” is the key word here. Thin film PV can be produced through low cost, fully automated, high output roll-to-roll systems. In other words, although the new factory is expected to generate 500 new jobs in Ohio, the heavy lifting will be done by robots.”

That’s right, robots. First Solar has brought hundreds of permanent solar jobs to Ohio in addition to thousands of construction jobs, but its judicious use of automation is a cost-cutter that enables its Series 6 solar module to compete with overseas manufacturers.

“Designed and developed at the Company’s research and development centers in California and Ohio, the module is produced in just 3.5 hours using sophisticated, fully-integrated manufacturing processes,” explains First Solar.

The company also estimates that the carbon footprint of its thin film manufacturing process is 6 times lower than conventional silicon solar panels, which also gives it a competitive edge in the global carbon-cutting race.

Thin Film Solar Gets Its Shining Moment, In Ohio

That facility started up in 2019. Last summer First Solar also broke ground on a third solar panel plant aimed at 3.3 gigawatts in output, with operation anticipated in 2023.

“The ‘factory of the future’ will expand First Solar’s U.S. manufacturing footprint to 6 GW and the facility will be designed to produce enhanced thin film PV module for the U.S. market,” reported the Sentinel-Tribune.

“When fully operational, the facility will scale the company’s Northwest Ohio footprint to a total annual capacity of 6 GWDC, which is believed to make it the largest fully vertically integrated solar manufacturing complex outside of China,” they add.

For those of you keeping score at home, First Solar’s Ohio footprint began in 2002 with the opening of a factory in Perrysville, which churned out 1.5 gigawatts.

About That Solar Cell Research Project…Group Hug For US Taxpayers!

As for that relationship with the US Department of Energy, First Solar and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory celebrated almost 30 years of solar cell collaboration last summer. NREL traces the relationship to First Solar’s initial iteration as Solar Cells, Inc., which was part of a small (very small) community of researchers on cadmium telluride (CdTe) technology, mainly taking place in the US.

When the two first hooked up, CdTe solar cells were considered an exotic, quirky hot mess with limited durability and relatively low solar conversion efficiency. However, that was then. The collaboration doubled the initial solar conversion efficiency of 10% to a respectable 20%. The durability issue has been showcased by First Solar’s array at the NREL campus in Colorado, which is still churning out the clean kilowatts after 25 years.

The R&D work continues right up to now. A few years ago, NREL and First Solar started pursuing the idea of improving efficiency and durability even further, by adding arsenic doping instead of copper to the production line. As described by NREL, First Solar is currently adding the process to its facilities.

Big Plans For US Solar Panel Makers

Circling back around to the Solar Futures Study, it’s true that the leap from 3% to 40% is a big one. However, the technology tools are mostly in place to get ‘er done. The only other obstacles are, well, obstacles. One key sticking point will be the availability of a domestic solar workforce that grows quickly enough to ratchet up the activity. Some industry observers have observed that the pay for non-unionized solar workers is fairly low compared to other energy jobs. That could put a crimp on growth, but there’s an easy fix for that (hint: pay more).

Another factor slowing down rapid solar growth in the US could be the focus on forced labor in China. A new article in The Washington Post outlines the issue. Until First Solar and other US manufacturers ramp up domestic solar panel production, buyers will have to depend on imports from China and elsewhere, potentially exposing themselves to criticism for supporting human rights abuses overseas.

That certainly hasn’t stopped leading US solar buyers so far, many of which are tech firms that already have big footprints in China and have been deflecting on human rights issues for many years. After all, practice makes perfect. However, as the Post points out, the Biden administration has focused renewed attention on the issue.

“Customs and Border Protection this summer began blocking the import of solar panels that it believed could contain materials from Hoshine Silicon, a Chinese company that it said appeared to be coercing workers from the persecuted Uyghur minority by threatening them or restricting their movement,” the Post reported earlier this week, citing one example.

Fine. If White House foreign policy creates a solar panel logjam, leading energy buyers can always turn to the domestic wind industry for help in achieving the overall goal of a carbon-free electricity grid by 2035. The long-dormant US offshore wind industry is finally poised for a breakthrough, bringing that 2035 carbon-free target closer to reach, one way or another.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: First Solar, an NREL research partner, has installed a small PV array used as part of NREL Energy Systems Integration research ongoing at the laboratory’s National Wind Technology Center. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL”

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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