Between economic downturns, political interference, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a supply chain that depends heavily on imported solar panels and components, US solar developers have faced their share of slings and arrows. Now it looks like better times are ahead. The US firm First Solar has just announced a $1.2 billion plan to make American solar panels great again, including a massive new factory alongside an expansion of its existing operations.
Making American Solar Panels Great Again
First Solar burned up the Intertubes when it announced its new PV expansion plans on Thursday, and if you’re wondering what all the fuss is about that’s a good question.
Aside from First Solar, a number of other solar manufacturers are already churning out solar panels in the US.
However, few can satisfy the made-in-America purity test. Some operate under the umbrella of corporations headquartered overseas, and some assemble solar panels from parts made overseas.
The purity test may seem somewhat out of step in a globalized economy, but if domestic energy security is the goal, then a soup-to-nuts domestic manufacturing base is a priority.
In fact, the US once had a 100% lock on the global solar manufacturing scene. Bell Labs introduced the first practical solar panels in the 1950s, and US manufacturers began churning them out for the space program and other niche applications domestically and elsewhere around the globe. By the 1980s, though, US manufacturers began losing out to Japan, and it was all over when China entered the picture.
The Thin Film Cadmium Telluride Difference
By the 1990s, the US Department of Energy was casting about for a way to revive the domestic solar industry. Labor costs were one of the leading obstacles, partly due to the use of silicon as the material of choice for solar panels. The hunt was on for new materials that would be a better fit for high volume, high throughput, automated manufacturing systems.
That basically means thin film PV was a focus of attention. Thin film solar cells are not as efficient as conventional silicon solar cells, but their relatively low cost is a counterbalance. In addition, their light weight and flexibility offer a wider range of applications.
First Solar was one of the solar startups scouted by the Energy Department in the 1990s. The agency was impressed by First Solar’s use of cadmium telluride, a stable compound that offers the potential for solar panels to beat the cost of producing electricity from fossil sources.
A domestic supply of cadmium also helped to make the case for a thin film PV research partnership between the Energy Department and First Solar, dating back to 2003.
During the Obama administration all that work began to pay off, as First Solar began to make, then break, its own solar conversion efficiency records. By 2021 the company had two factories up and running in Ohio, and they were breaking ground on a third facility in the same state.
Big Expansion Plans For Thin Film Solar Panels
That brings us around to the latest news from First Solar. The new $1.2 billion expansion plan includes up to $1 billion to add a fourth factory to the company’s roster, to be located in the southeastern US in a state to be named later. The new factory will have an annual capacity of 3.5 gigawatts (DC).
About $185 million will also go to upgrade the capacity of First Solar’s operations in Ohio, adding another 0.9 gigawatts among the three existing factories to bring them up to about 7 gigawatts collectively. All together, the company expects to have more than 10 gigawatts in capacity online by 2025.
Clearly, the expansion plans were in the works long before the ink dried on the newly minted version of President Biden’s climate bill, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. Nevertheless, First Solar CEO Mark Widmar credited the bill with validating the plan and motivating future investment.
“In passing the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, Congress and the Biden-Harris Administration has entrusted our industry with the responsibility of enabling America’s clean energy future and we must meet the moment in a manner that is both timely and sustainable,” he said.
“We continue to evaluate further investments in incremental capacity and could announce further expansion plans in the future,” he also noted, though he cautioned that “any such decision would be developed on a solid foundation of strong demand” among other factors.
Onward & Upward For Solar Panels Made In The US
That thing about “strong demand” sure sounds like Widmar was dropping a careful hint about the importance of building on the Inflation Reduction Act with more policies that support the growth of the US solar industry.
That comment was probably aimed at Republican lawmakers, especially members of Ohio’s Congressional delegation, who voted in lockstep against the climate bill. The Inflation Reduction Act passed the House of Representatives strictly along party lines, and Vice President Kamala cast the deciding vote to break a 50-50 partly line tie in the Senate.
Widmar may have had the Energy Department’s new $20 million Cadmium Telluride Accelerator Consortium in mind. The new consortium officially launched on August 1, ahead of the Inflation Reduction Act Vote.
The new consortium is centered in Ohio and features First Solar in a leadership position alongside the University of Toledo, Colorado State University, the cadmium telluride PV firm Toledo Solar Inc., and the Illinois incubator Sivananthan Laboratories, Inc.
The new consortium aims at lowering the cost of cadmium telluride solar cells, increasing production volume, boosting efficiency, and developing new markets — before overseas companies get there first.
Cadmium technology only holds a small share of the overall solar market, but it is the second-most common material for solar panels after silicon.
“CdTe solar cells were first developed in the United States,” the Energy Department emphasizes.” Without strengthened domestic manufacturing capacity, the U.S. will continue to rely on clean energy imports, exposing the nation to supply chain vulnerabilities while simultaneously losing out on the enormous job opportunities associated with the energy transition.”
“The Consortium’s efforts to spur technological advancements will increase America’s competitiveness, bolster domestic innovation, and support clean electricity deployment supporting President Biden’s goal of achieving a net-zero economy by 2050,” they add.
Democratic US Representative Marcy Kaptur of Ohio’s 9th Congressional District, for one, greeted the consortium enthusiastically.
“Northern Ohio has already revolutionized the field of solar technology. Now, through this remarkable partnership between the U.S. Department of Energy, the University of Toledo, and First Solar – our region will become a hub of next-generation energy innovation that is built right here at home by Ohio’s workers,” she said.
One might think that such a prize would have inclined at the entire Congressional delegation of Ohio to vote in favor of the Inflation Reduction Act. However, only the Democratic members did that.
As it stands, the Republican members of Ohio’s delegation, all 13 of them — one Senator and 12 Representatives — have some ‘splaining to do.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: Thin film cadmium telluride PV factory courtesy of First Solar via globalnewswire.com.
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