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Solar Market Trends

Thin-film cells: Retrospect and outlook

June 10, 2021 Alan TU

CN TW EN

In October 2020, First Solar researched and developed Series 6 CuRe technology, finding the fifth column of the periodic table (group V) as stable replacement of copper, thus reduced the use of copper, raising performance capacity and offering long-term stability. Series 6 CuRe modules, available in power output from 450-480 W, have a power efficiency ranging from 17.9% to 19%. First Solar is by far the only thin-film module company with large-scale production expansion and steadily increasing shipments on the market. The company is expected to launch products with a power output exceeding 500 W in accordance with market trends.

Latest updates

In the U.S., First Solar can achieve 1.9 GW of annual production output. Outside of the U.S., the company has manufacturing plants in Malaysia and Vietnam, with the second plant in Malaysia having entered mass-production in the first quarter. By the first quarter of 2021, First Solar’s capacity for Solar 6 Series modules reached 7.9 GW.

First Solar received little impact from the COVID-19 pandemic last year. In fact, the company reduced 10% of production cost per watt compared with 2019 and claimed that it will cut 11% of cost per watt by the end of 2021, and achieve at least 97.5% of yield rates. With yield rates continually increase, production costs dropped accordingly, doubled with sufficient order volumes, the financial performance of First Solar has made firm progresses.

From the beginning of this year to April 28, First Solar has produced 2.4 GW of thin-film modules. The company’s production capacity in 2021 has been nearly booked, with at least 7.4 GW of estimated shipment volume. It is expected that 6.4 GW and 3 GW of capacity will become order intake for 2022 and 2023-2024, respectively.

Over the past five years, other thin film module manufacturers were gradually eliminated by crystalline silicon-based products that enjoy better price–performance. First Solar, in contrast, experienced a spike in annual production volume, from 3.1 GW in 2016 to 6.1 GW in 2021, almost a double fold increase. The cost per watt also dropped from USD 0.75 in 2011 to nearly the same level as crystalline silicon modules.

Outlook

The power efficiency of First Solar’s thin-film modules has approached to that of mono-Si modules. However, despite years of cost reductions, the production cost per watt is still inferior to that of crystalline silicon modules, which has achieved economic of scale for years. As a result, it is rather difficult for First Solar’s thin-film modules to gain market share. With advantages in price-performance, mono-Si modules continue dominating and leading the entire PV market amid global trends. Therefore, First Solar will continue to focus on the U.S. market, where tariff barrier on crystalline silicon modules still remains.

first solar module

Despite continually increasing production volumes, First Solar is still faced with insurmountable problems. First of all, thin-film cells cannot apply bifacial technology, which has seen strong growth in recent years. Bifacial modules offer advantages such as optimizing generation efficiency through utilizing ground reflection. Bifacial modules not only increase the efficiency of each cell in limited areas but accelerate snow melting process, mitigating the impacts of rough weather in high latitude countries. Also, local thin-film module makers were affected, as last year’s Section 201 exclusion for bifacial modules allow countries to export bifacial modules to the U.S. under more favorable conditions.

Secondly, the raw material of CdTe thin-film cells is tellurium, a rare chemical element on earth, with amount far less than that of silicon. The primary question of developing cadmium telluride thin-film solar cells is whether tellurium on earth is sufficient to mass-produce and apply cadmium telluride thin-film solar modules. Moreover, cadmium is a toxic heavy metal, the use and recycle of which are with vital importance. Therefore, First Solar must provide relevant supporting services as well.

Being the only manufacturer not applying crystalline silicon technology among the world’s top 10 module makers, First Solar does have its unique market. With advantages in light weight and product appearance, the company is capable of designing building-integrated photovoltaics, which is applicable on rooftops and walls of business or other buildings, regardless of lightening directions.

Additionally, unlike other manufacturers, First Solar focuses more on customer services, providing long-term insurance, after-sale services, and recycling. To sustain or increase its market share in the future, First Solar must continue seeing breakthroughs in conversion efficiency and yield rates, thereby reducing production cost, whilst taking advantage of the exclusive bendability and non-location-boundedness of thin-film, to differentiate from crystalline silicon cells.

Source: First Solar official documents

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Keywords Thin-film cell module
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