First Solar: Solar firms in ‘horse race’ for technology leadership

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This article is part of our special report Solar Power.

David Eaglesham, chief technology officer at First Solar, says all photovoltaic companies are scrambling to make efficiency and cost improvements. But if Europe is to retain its leadership, decisions on a regulatory framework are crucial, he told EURACTIV in an interview.

David Eaglesham is chief technology officer at First Solar.

He was speaking to Susanna Ala-Kurikka.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

What photovoltaic (PV) solar technology improvements are you expecting in the future? Are these going to be ground-breaking new technologies or improvements within existing technologies?

There's a horse race going on here. All companies are working on all the technology improvements that they can drive. How fast all the different technologies will improve remains to be seen.

Our assessment says that we can continue to make substantial improvements in our existing technology. So we have high confidence that we can make good near-term improvements in efficiency and cost, but primarily efficiency.

So short-term, we have a lot of confidence that we can improve our existing technology out a long way into the future. Long-term we talk to everybody because the only constant is change.

According to reports, First Solar is researching a new thin-film technology that could replace cadmium telluride. Can you tell us more about this?

We're looking at a lot of different options. Our job is to explore all future avenues, and we don't rule out any of them.

My expectation is that something new will always come along, and as a technology leader our job is to figure out how to make sure that the new thing will be part of our technology portfolio.

We spend a lot of time talking to start-ups and people developing new technologies within universities, and making decisions on whether we should acquire start-up companies, whether we should bring technologies in from universities.

But currently, when we project where other technologies go to in terms of their potential and how long we think the runway is for these technologies, these other technologies by and large don't project to achieve a lower cost of electricity or better environmental profile than our existing technology.

You said that the industry is targeting 10 eurocents per kWh in future to make solar a competitive electricity source. How long will it take until the prices drop to that?

It depends very critically on how sunny it is and how it's installed. By and large, the bigger the installation is, the lower the installation cost and the sunnier it is, the lower the cost of electricity is as well. So it's very hard to give a single one-number answer.

Are you concerned that there might be a shortage of key raw materials for your solar panels?

We have a supply chain organisation whose job it is to source materials for us. We've spent enough time to get confidence that this is not going to interfere with our business growth. We have high confidence that we have a roadmap that is sustainable.

Speculation has been rife about the availability of tellurium. Are you concerned about China's restrictions on exports of rare earths?

Tellurium is a scarce element, but it is not a rare earth metal. There's a lot of discussion in the mining community about where there are deposits of tellurium. But it's mostly speculative and the public information is incomplete.

I think we have ways to source our raw materials in adequate volumes.

Applied Materials, an American company, has opened the world's largest commercial solar research and development centre in China. Is there a danger that R&D in the solar sector could move away from Europe and the US to China, along with the market share?

Today, the technology leadership clearly lies within the EU and the US. That means that the EU can choose to keep the lead, and a lot of that will depend on establishing a regulatory framework that supports the industry because by and large, the industry will tend to follow the market. You tend to make investments where market growth resides.

There are a couple of things that are critical for the market. One is right now to sustain the market in Europe in this transition from large subsidies to smaller subsidies and transitioning into long-term sustainable markets. Obviously the renewables sector needs to reduce costs and make that transition, but the regulatory framework needs to be there to help the industry through the transition. A critical thing there is slow, smooth changes and consistency of policy.

For the regulations around specific technologies and materials, the key is to establish a level playing field and to have a regulatory framework that allows different kinds of energy-generating technologies to be compared with one another.

I think for the renewables industry it's very important that regarding regulations like WEEE and RoHS, you don't have a collection of regulations that apply only to photovoltaics and don't apply to the fossil fuel generating industry with which we're competing. To have rapid and abrupt transitions in the regulatory environment is something that is detrimental to any industry.

First Solar has based its solar module production on the premise that its recycling scheme allows it to use materials such as cadmium, which cannot end up in landfills. Now that the RoHS directive restricting the use of hazardous substances in electronic devices is being reviewed, with talk about extending the scope to renewable equipment, do you think you will have to review this strategy?

I think it's critical that we pay for the full life cycle of the product at the point of sale. When the user buys the product, they are paying for its future recycling 25 years hence. I think that's a very visionary direction to go and there's an argument that we as a society should apply that to everything.

Financially, we invest for the future recycling at the point of sale. We give that money to an independently managed trust fund, and if we go out of business tomorrow, then in 25 years' time they pay for the recycling.

It's designed to recover 90% of the glass and 95% of the semiconductor material. In the event that for whatever reason some of the modules would end up in a landfill, we've actually done leeching tests to measure whether the materials leech out and we've established that there's no leeching of cadmium.

All the indicators that I've seen are that regulators are well aware of the issues that they create to the industry with abrupt changes and regulations like suddenly applying RoHS to photovoltaics. I think they're also well aware of this regulatory conflict that you create between the RoHS goals and the 2020 sustainability goals and are figuring out ways that they can navigate that without creating those issues.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently published its roadmap for solar photovoltaics and concentrating solar power, predicting that PV will rather be used in decentralised generation while CSP will be produced in large-scale installations. Do you see competition for your technology from CSP in terms of utility-scale production?

We'll see where the different technologies go in terms of cost of generation. Some solar panels are focused on the residential sector because they are simply not cost-effective in larger-scale generation. Our numbers clearly show that our photovoltaic panels can be cost-effective in a large generating facility and we can and do compete successfully with concentrating solar on a kilowatt hour basis.

Concentrating solar is a useful piece of the overall energy mix but we believe that we can compete with that technology.

When I look at the overall landscape, as a technologist I start from the overall goal and work backwards, so I start from 2020 or 2050 and say, what does the technology have to deliver for it to make sense for society to implement this technology on an appropriate scale for it to impact the problem that I’m trying to solve, which is the global problem.

If you begin with the 2020 goal of having a society powered largely by renewables, the answer is not this technology or that technology – it's got to be all of the above. Then putting a regulatory framework in place that lets all technologies compete becomes the overarching goal.

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