By John DeFore
Business types, evidently, feel they know all they need to know about Tempe, Ariz., firm First Solar, a nine-year old company being called “the Google of solar.” In a year and a half, investors drove its stock price up from $25 to $250. But aside from reports that this year’s sales are projected to hit $1 billion, what exactly do they know?
The company is highly secretive about its innovations, it seems, going so far as to refuse to speak with journalists. Now, an in-depth story in IEEE Spectrum Online attempts to get to the bottom of how, as the journal says, “within five years, this company’s thin-film solar cells could compete with coal.”
First Solar uses cadmium telluride (CdTe) rather than silicon, and the thin CdTe films it manufactures are a hundredth the thickness of silicon solar material and take a tenth as long to produce — advantages that could offset the fact that they aren’t as efficient as conventional silicon devices at turning sunlight into electricity. And the company is churning them out: The story’s author Richard Stevenson reports they’re on their way to having an annual production capacity of “just over 1 gigawatt by 2009.” (By comparison, the Mitsubishi solar production expansion we just reported on here hopes to hit three-fifths of that capacity by 2012.)
Stevenson’s article gets impressively technical on the second and third pages, doing detective work with industry analysts to guess at the exact nature of First Solar’s new processes, and wraps up with a list of competing companies and other technologies (using multiple substances to capture more sunlight, for example) that could outpace First Solar’s impressive rise.
But for casual readers, all this is just support for the bold claims on the first page that: “…analysts agree that [First Solar] will very likely meet typical grid-parity prices” within two to four years.
Translated that means the company will offer a product that will cost roughly $1-per-watt cell price, matching the cost of other forms of electricity “in developed countries”.
Unfortunately, these groundbreaking panels aren’t currently being sold to the public. First Solar is keeping plenty busy meeting the demand of solar farm operators and corporations who want them on factory rooftops.
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