First Solar Is Using Robots to Better Tap the Sun
A year ago, First Solar Inc.’s future looked uncertain. Deeply underpriced by a string of Chinese competitors, the Tempe, Ariz., maker of solar panels laid off hundreds of workers, sold equipment, and shut down its factory on the outskirts of Toledo, its only one in the U.S., as it prepared to gut and remodel the place. That last move, however, has paid off.
The Ohio plant has been reborn as an almost fully automated operation, daily churning out hundreds of solar panels for a fraction of what it costs rivals to make them. The secret: supersize panels made with cadmium telluride, an energy-absorbing metal compound that First Solar engineers figured out how to spray on glass sheets in a thin film. First Solar invested more than $1 billion in researching and developing the cad-tel spray over the course of two decades. Its success upended the business of solar panel production even before the Trump administration announced tariffs on overseas solar hardware on Jan. 22.
Early in the plant renovation process, “when I first saw that empty factory floor, my heart sank,” Chief Executive Officer Mark Widmar recalls. He was unsure the automation would pay off. “I thought, What have we done? But we’re now in a better competitive position than ever.”
Today a visitor to the factory, which reopened in December, looks out over a line of robotic arms guiding sheets of specialized conductive glass onto rollers that snake 3 miles through cleaning, grinding, and spraying machines. A final robot grabs the completed panel, about the size of a large flatscreen TV, and places it in a box for shipment. There are just a few dozen workers scattered about; before the renovation, there were hundreds. The company acknowledges that it’s cut jobs, but it says the ones that remain are safer and pay better.
First Solar’s patented handful of steps takes just three and a half hours, compared with the three days the leading Chinese solar companies need to make similar-size silicon panels. The conventional process requires more than 100 steps, including fabricating silicon ingots in a furnace, shaving them into wafers, wiring on metal contacts to make cells, and assembling 60 or so of those cells.
The panels coming off the new line in Ohio are triple the size of First Solar’s previous model and produce 244 percent more power at a manufacturing cost of as little as 20¢ per watt, about 30 percent less than the cheapest Chinese equivalent. The advantage widens in hot, humid, and low-light conditions. “They have a great new product and a significant cost advantage for at least a couple years,” says Jay Rhame, a portfolio manager at Reave Asset Management, which has invested in First Solar.
Using cad-tel for solar energy dates to the 1950s, and companies including General Electric, Kodak, and BP worked on the technology before abandoning it. In the 1990s, First Solar founder Harold McMaster came up with a method for spraying a liquid form of the compound onto sheets of glass. He later sold the company to John Walton, a son of Walmart Inc. founder Sam Walton. The Walton family remains First Solar’s largest shareholder.
First Solar was the leading supplier of solar panels a decade ago, but it struggled to make them big enough, or quickly enough, to compete once Chinese companies entered the market in earnest. The new entrants’ cheap labor and economies of scale, combined with an 83 percent drop in the cost of silicon, allowed them to slash prices and wipe out much of the U.S. industry. (Remember Solyndra?) First Solar was one of the few survivors, thanks to federally funded contracts in California.
In the past few years, automation has proven the key to success, advancing enough to make bigger cad-tel panels. “Cad-tel is by far the best semiconductor for solar,” says Raffi Garabedian, First Solar’s chief technology officer. “It’s just 3 microns thick, and it’s black, so it absorbs all the light.”
CEO Widmar has committed an additional $1.4 billion over the next two years to expand production at two new factories in Vietnam and to retrofit four others the company runs in Malaysia. Those factories are exempt from Trump’s tariffs, giving the company a further advantage. Wall Street has taken note: While solar stocks have typically remained flat at best over the past year, First Solar shares have more than doubled.
Beyond the short term, though, First Solar will be depending on the success of its Asian plants. It will also have to continue spending to keep pace with further advances. Researchers worldwide are working on a new ultracheap semiconductive material based on perovskites, natural crystals that are easily replicated in labs. In nature, these crystals tend to degrade when exposed to sunlight, but if they could be stabilized, panel makers could leapfrog cad-tel, says Ben Kallo, an analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co. China remains a threat, says Rhame of Reave Asset Management: “We don’t know when their next breakthrough will come.”
January 24, 2018 at 07:33PM