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.
Photovoltaic (PV) solar companies are competing in a "horse race" to make all the technology improvements they can, Eaglesham said. Although First Solar is the world's leading producer of thin-film solar panels, he said it is not resting on its laurels but working on making "substantial" energy-efficiency gains.
"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," Eaglesham said.
Asked whether First Solar is exploring new technology options, the technology chief said the company spends a lot of time talking to start-ups and people developing new technologies within 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," he stressed.
Europe has earned itself international market leadership in PV thanks to supportive regulatory frameworks, including feed-in tariffs to help the technology compete with less expensive fossil fuel-based electricity.
Eaglesham warned, however, that China and other emerging markets are investing heavily in renewable energies and EU support must continue until clean technologies have attained so-called 'grid parity' with other sources, such as coal or gas.
"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," he argued.
Currently, the hottest legislative debate for the European renewables industry is the recast of the RoHS directive, which restricts the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic household appliances. Proposals on the table to move to an open scope would bring PV and other renewable equipment under the directive and require an exemption for the use of cadmium telluride, used by First Solar as semiconductor.
Eaglesham pointed out that the company already recovers 95% of semiconductor material through its recycling scheme.
He argued the regulatory framework needs to allow for a level playing field for different types of energy-generating technologies.
"I think for the renewables industry it's very important that […] 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," Eaglesham warned.