Lux Research: Thin-film solar modules could challenge silicon in the coming years

The two leading thin-film solar manufacturers, First Solar and Solar Frontier, represent a combined manufacturing capacity of 4 GW. While they do not pose a short-term challenge to crystalline silicon players’ market dominance, ongoing innovations will ensure thin-film remains a significant player, according to Lux Research.

Of the two, First Solar is far bigger, with expertise in utility-scale systems and a new large-format module design that will help maintain its gigawatt-scale presence in utility-scale systems, as deployment grows in emerging markets. Solar Frontier has gradually diversified its business away from its home market of Japan and is making steps towards a rooftop building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) product.

“Both Solar Frontier and First Solar are moving forward to remain competitive with crystalline silicon. While First Solar will remain the thin-film leader, Solar Frontier has exhibited a willingness to form joint ventures to extend its scale,” said Tyler Ogden, Lux Research analyst and lead author of the report titled, “Tier-One Technology Tracker: Charting the Momentum of Thin-Film Leaders Solar Frontier and First Solar.”

Lux research thin film

Lux Research analysts compared Solar Frontier and First Solar, evaluating the two companies’ varied approaches, strengths and weaknesses. Among their findings:

• First Solar ahead on momentum. In Lux’s momentum analysis, First Solar had a score of 3.7, out of five, moving faster in technology progress and executing a competitive product strategy. Solar Frontier scored 2.9, moving adeptly into new markets through partnerships, while keeping pace in its financial position and manufacturing.

• Solar Frontier capitalizes on niches. Solar Frontier is taking steps toward a BIPV product, with preconfigured systems, flexibility and novel form factors. These are small differentiations in its current rooftop market, but can provide the groundwork for a larger BIPV industry with Solar Frontier at the helm, potentially a huge payoff.

• Challenges lie ahead for both. First Solar’s further growth hinges on plant-wide adoption of its Series 6 module and achieving systems costs below $1.00/W. Solar Frontier’s future rests on its ability to move its success in the lab to commercial production, and a partnership with a storage provider to integrate a lithium-ion battery option with its residential systems.

Thin-Film in 2016: Don’t look now, but thin-film PV is positioned for growth

 

— Solar Builder magazine

First Solar sells Moapa Southern Paiute Solar project to Capital Dynamics

First Solar completed the sale of the cash equity interests in the 250 MW AC Moapa Southern Paiute Solar Project in Nevada to global private asset manager Capital Dynamics. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

You may recall that this was one of our Projects of the Year for 2016.

Moapa_screws

Minority tax equity interests in the project are shared by GE unit GE Energy Financial Services, and an affiliate of the Goldman Sachs Group.

Located on the Moapa River Indian Reservation approximately 30 miles north of Las Vegas, this facility is the first-ever utility-scale solar power plant to be built on tribal land, and has a long-term power purchase agreement (PPA) with LADWP to bring clean, renewable energy to Los Angeles residents. The solar power plant is capable of generating enough clean energy to power approximately 111,000 homes.

 

First Solar Energy Services will operate and maintain the power plant for Capital Dynamics.

By using renewable energy from the sun, the Moapa Southern Paiute Solar Project will avoid approximately 341,000 metric tons per year of carbon dioxide emissions that would have been produced if the electricity had been generated using fossil fuels – the equivalent of taking nearly 73,000 cars off the road. First Solar’s technology creates no air or water pollution and uses no water to generate electricity.

— Solar Builder magazine

Investor outlook: Four solar companies to watch as the industry matures

The following perspective was shared with us via Financialbuzz.com

Over the course of the last several years the solar industry has finally gone mainstream. A recent research published on December 12, 2016 by The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) shows how much progress has been made. The U.S. installed 4,143 megawatts (MW) of solar PV in the third quarter of 2016 to reach 35.8 gigawatts (GW) of total installed capacity, enough to power 6.5 million American homes. With more than 1 million residential solar installations nationwide and record-breaking growth in the utility-scale sector, the industry is projected to nearly double year-over-year.

Despite the encouraging numbers however, the industry still faces the challenges that are so familiar to businesses reaching maturity – improving efficiency and cutting costs. Thanks to technological innovations, the solar market is combating these challenges. Solarwindow Technologies, Corning Incorporated, Tesla, Canadian Solar, First Solar.

The innovations ahead

Nevada solar utility

Most solar companies today manufacture solar panels using large portions of silicon, called ingots, and cut it into small rectangular shapes. These silicon components account for approximately 40% of the cost of production for solar panels. While some companies have been finding ways to manufacture panels for cheaper using the same materials, the expectations are now somewhat different.

According to a report by Fortune, “today as the industry matures, much more of the expected lowered production costs will come from new components that plug into traditional silicon solar panels, new ways to manage the electrons from panels, or new ways to finance and sell the panels.” In addition, some innovative companies are coming up with entire new techniques to salvage the sun’s energy.

Solarwindow Technologies creates transparent electricity-generating liquid coatings. When applied to glass or plastics, these coatings convert passive windows and other materials into electricity generators under natural, artificial, low, shaded, and even reflected light conditions. Earlier this week, Solarwindow Technologies announced that, “it has been named a winner in the 2017 BIG Innovation Awards presented by the Business Intelligence Group.

Unlike conventional solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, the company’s coatings can be applied to all sides of tall towers, generating electricity using natural and artificial light, as well from diffused and reflected light, and in shaded areas.

RELATED: How the cell-optimizer, string inverter combo could change PV systems 

When applied to a 50-story building, SolarWindow could avoid more than two million miles of equivalent carbon dioxide emitted by vehicles on the road, reduce electricity costs by as much as 50 percent per year, provide 15-times the environmental benefits over other roof-top solar PV systems, and according to independently-validated engineering modeling, could achieve a one-year financial payback.”

On Jan. 18, Solarwindow Technologies revealed that the company’s “scientists and engineers recently applied layers of the company’s liquid coatings on to Corning Willow Glass and laminated them under conditions that simulate the high pressure and temperatures of the manufacturing processes used by commercial glass and window producers. The result is a bendable glass ‘veneer’, as thin as a business card, which generates electricity.” The Corning Willow Glass is developed by Corning Incorporated (NYSE: GLW), a company with expertise in specialty glass, ceramics, and optical physics.

American automaker and energy storage company, Tesla Inc., showcased it’s at-home battery, the Powerwall 2, for homes and small businesses that stores the sun’s energy and delivers clean, reliable electricity when the sun isn’t shining. Chief Executive Officer, Elon Musk, emphasizes that homes can capture this free, abundant energy source through rooftop solar tiles, turning sunlight into electricity for immediate use or storage in a Powerwall battery. The new Tesla Powerwall 2 will cost around $5,500, which consist of a built-in inverter and twice the storage capacity of the first ever Powerwall battery. The product is not yet available out in the market.

Canadian Solar Inc. announced that it has completed the sale of the outstanding shares of 3 utility-scale solar farm holding companies, SSM 1 Solar ULC, SSM 2 Solar ULC, and SSM 3 Solar ULC, totaling 59.8 MW AC to Fengate SSM Holdco LP, an affiliate of Fengate Real Asset Investments for over $195.32 Million. Dr. Shawn Qu, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Canadian Solar, commented, “We are delighted to announce the successful sale of 3 additional solar power plants. To this point, we have sold all of our operating plants of 100 MWdc in Canada, including the BeamLight and Alfred projects sold in December 2016. We value our partnership with Fengate and look forward to deepening our cooperation while we continue to monetize our solar power plants in other countries.”

First Solar Inc. has been awarded the module supply contract for the 140-megawatt Sun Metals Solar Farm in North Queensland, Australia. The project marks the largest solar initiative by the country and, once constructed, is set to utilize more than 1.16 million First Solar advanced thin-film photovoltaic modules to produce approximately 270,000 megawatt-hours of energy in its first year of operation.

“Large-scale solar is fast becoming one of the most cost-effective sources of energy generation in Australia. This project represents the viability of the commercial and industrial solar market in Australia, and the growing trend of major energy consumers owning and operating renewable energy assets,” said Jack Curtis, First Solar’s regional manager for Asia Pacific.

— Solar Builder magazine

First Solar jumping to Series 6 module production, layoffs forthcoming

First Solar logoFirst Solar is changing things up amid some uncertain times for large, industry leaders like themselves. In terms of production, the company announced the acceleration of its Series 6 modules into 2018, with approximately 3 GW of production expected in 2019. Over the course of 2017 and 2018 the company’s existing production facilities will be converted to Series 6 production and the current Series 4 product will be phased out. As a result of the change in roadmap the Company will cancel its Series 5 product.

“The acceleration of the Series 6 roadmap is an important development for First Solar,” said Mark Widmar, CEO of First Solar. “Following the completion of an internal review process to evaluate the best competitive response to address the current challenging market conditions, we have developed plans that will enable us to more quickly begin production of our Series 6 module. Although the decision to accelerate our Series 6 roadmap requires a restructuring of our current operations, we expect the transition to Series 6 will enable us to maximize the intrinsic cost advantage of CdTe thin-film technology versus crystalline silicon. Recent steep module pricing declines require us to evaluate all components of our cost structure and streamline our business model to best position the Company for long-term success.”

RELATED: First Solar books big utility-scale community solar deployment 

Layoffs on the way

First Solar is also reducing the workforce at its manufacturing facilities both domestically and internationally as a result of the transition from Series 4 to Series 6 production. Additional reductions in administrative and other staff are also planned. The total number of layoffs will be around 1,600 employees.

Resulting from the transition to Series 6 from Series 4 and other competitive factors, the Company expects to incur restructuring and asset impairment charges of $500 to $700 million, which includes a cash impact of $70 to $100 million.

— Solar Builder magazine

Solar Builder Project of The Year Winner: Moapa Southern Paiute Solar

Moapa Southern Paiute Solar

Category: Ground-Mount (utility-scale)
Moapa, Nev. | 353 MW

20160518-2016-05-18-09.30

You may remember this project first appearing in our Sept./Oct. issue in which we highlighted the importance of the ground screws in completing the project. It was entered into the Project of the Year awards shortly thereafter and received the most votes in the utility-scale category. So, let’s get reacquainted with it, shall we?

Located 45 minutes northeast of Las Vegas is the Moapa Indian Reservation and tribal members of the Moapa Band of Paiutes are motivated to make better, more sustainable use of their available land. As the Dakota Access Pipeline debacle has revealed, the energy sector doesn’t always treat tribal lands with much respect, and the Moapa Band of Paiutes tribal members have fought for years to close a nearby coal-burning power plant that releases coal ash into their land and could very likely be causing a rise in asthma and other health issues.

Pursuing a renewable energy future here is beneficial beyond economic impact because reliable solar energy that closes this coal plant could change lives.

ttTaming with a screw

The Moapa land is both sacred and severe. The biggest challenge for installing a massive solar array here comes from a soil combination fused together by limestone called caliche, which is typically found in South America.

Encountering a 12- to 24-in. layer of caliche in the United States was an unexpected twist and, to compound the issue, there was about 8 to 12 in. of light sand. This combination was an issue for both typical driven piles and standard surveying methods, and according to project developer Moapa Southern Paiute Solar LLC (a subsidiary of First Solar Electric LLC) both were overcome with the help of TerraSmart solutions.

We highlighted the value of the 128,000 ground screws in Sept./Oct. for being a cost-effective solution that accelerated the installation of the fixed-tilt mounting sysem that supports 3,209,091 modules on 2,000 acres in tough caliche terra.

Because of the loose sand and the requirement to leave as much sacred land unharmed as possible, accuracy was important when pinpointing pile location. So, instead of the standard surveying method of staking points, TerraSmart’s software engineers developed a proprietary software to survey/drill at the project site. This software loaded the rock-drill machines with the coordinates to locate foundation points, and drilling was completed without disturbing unnecessary land and saving money for the developers.

“We were pleased with how respectful the company was of the Moapa land and people,” Moapa Solar stated. “It was unusual for companies to take so much care not to disturb the sacred spaces around the array.”

Check out the other 2016 Project of the Year Winners

20160518-2016-05-18-16.07Power to the people

The project used First Solar’s advanced photovoltaic (PV) thin-film solar modules and is predicted to generate enough clean solar energy to serve approximately 100,000 homes per year, displacing approximately 178,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually — the equivalent of taking about 34,000 cars off the road. It will also include an onsite substation and a new 5.5-mile 500-kV transmission line that will connect to the existing Crystal Substation serving energy users in California. Moapa Southern Paiute Solar Project has a power-purchase agreement (PPA) with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to deliver clean, solar energy for 25 years.

In the end, the project was delivered on time and on budget and became the first utility-scale solar plant on U.S. tribal lands.

— Solar Builder magazine