A new era of solar energy development is upon us as the global economy begins to rebound. From China to Chile to Spain, developers are building more solar projects than ever before. And in the United States, a new era of solar energy development is dawning.
The news from First Solar is good. It looks like we’re heading for better days ahead. First Solar, the US company, 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.
Restoring the greatness of American solar panels
First Solar’s announcement on Thursday has everyone talking. If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, that’s a good question. 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.
America once had a 100% lock on the global solar manufacturing scene. Bell Labs invented 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 Difference in Thin Film Cadmium Telluride
In the 1990s, the US Department of Energy was looking for a material that could replace the expensive silicon used in photovoltaic cells. Labor costs were one of the key obstacles, partly because of the use of silicon as the material of choice for solar panels.
The development of thin film PV is an important focus. Thin film PV is less efficient than silicon PV, but its low cost is a counterbalance. Its light weight and flexibility offer a wider range of applications.
The Department of Energy scouted First Solar as one of the solar companies in the 1990s. They were impressed by First Solar’s use of cadmium telluride, a stable compound that offered the potential for solar panels to compete with the cost of electricity from fossil fuels.
First Solar has also been working with the Energy Department to develop a domestic source of cadmium. All of that effort started to pay off under the Obama administration, as First Solar set and then broke its own records for solar conversion efficiency. The corporation opened two facilities in Ohio by 2021, and construction was beginning on a third factory in the same state.
Large-scale Thin Film Solar Panel Expansion Plans
First Solar has announced that it will build a 4th solar factory to increase its production capacity to 3.5 GW. The new factory will be located in the Southeast US and will be built at a cost of $1.2 billion.
First Solar anticipates upgrading its operations in Ohio for around $185 million, adding 0.9 gigawatts to each of the three current factories to bring their combined capacity to about 7 gigawatts. By 2025, the company anticipates having online a total of more than 10 gigawatts of capacity.
Before the newly-minted version of President Biden’s climate measure, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, was even signed into law, the expansion plans were already in the works. However, First Solar CEO Mark Widmar said that the bill helped to validate the strategy and spur further investment.
“Congress and the Biden-Harris Administration entrusted our business with the task of enabling America’s clean energy future by passing the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, and we must meet the moment in a way that is both timely and sustainable”
He said, “We continue to examine potential investments in incremental capacity and might announce other growth plans in the future,” but he was careful to add that “any such choice would be established on a solid basis of high demand”
Solar Panels Made In The US Are Moving Forward
The phrase “strong demand” certainly seems like Widmar was subtly hinting at the necessity of expanding on the Inflation Reduction Act with further measures that encourage the expansion of the US solar sector.
That remark was likely directed at Republican politicians, particularly the Ohio congressional delegation, who voted unanimously against the climate change legislation. The Inflation Reduction Act was unanimously approved by the House of Representatives across party lines, while Vice President Kamala’s decisive vote in the Senate broke a 50-50 partially party line tie.
Widmar could have been thinking about the new $20 million Cadmium Telluride Accelerator Consortium from the Energy Department. Prior to the vote on the Inflation Reduction Act, the new consortium began operations in earnest on August 1.
The University of Toledo, Colorado State University, the cadmium telluride PV company Toledo Solar Inc., the Illinois incubator Sivananthan Laboratories, Inc., and First Solar are all leaders in the new collaboration, which is based in Ohio.
The new cooperation intends to increase manufacturing volume, improve efficiency, decrease the cost of cadmium telluride solar cells, and open up new markets before foreign competitors do. Despite having a limited market share in the entire solar industry, cadmium is the second-most popular solar panel material after silicon.
Without improved domestic manufacturing capabilities, the U.S. will continue to rely on clean energy imports, exposing the country to supply chain vulnerabilities and missing out on the significant job opportunities associated with the energy transition. “CdTe solar cells were first developed in the United States,” the Energy Department emphasizes.
They continue, “The Consortium’s efforts to promote technical improvements will boost America’s competitiveness, assist domestic innovation, and help the deployment of clean power supporting President Biden’s objective of reaching a net-zero economy by 2050.
One Democratic US Representative from Ohio’s 9th Congressional District, Marcy Kaptur, welcomed the group warmly.
The solar technology industry has already undergone a transformation thanks to Northern Ohio. Now, thanks to this incredible collaboration between the U.S. With the help of the Department of Energy, the University of Toledo, and First Solar, our area will develop into a center for cutting-edge energy innovation that is created locally by Ohioans, she added.
One may assume that receiving such a reward would have convinced Ohio’s whole congressional delegation to support the Inflation Reduction Act. Only the Democratic lawmakers did it, though.
Solar panels have finally hit the mainstream. With solar panel technology improving by leaps and bounds, it’s easy to see why people are becoming interested in alternative energy.
But while the demand for solar panels has increased, so have the costs. The problem of high costs is holding back this industry. Until solar panel makers find ways to lower costs, we’re going to continue to see an increase in home-ownership, not just for the wealthy, but also for the middle class.