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04/10/2013 11:54 AM     print story email story  

First Solar Enters Residential Rooftop PV

SustainableBusiness.com News

First Solar is diversifying once again, this time into residential rooftop solar.

The company started out as the leader in thin-film PV for non-residential applications, but when the solar manufacturing industry hit a wall a few years ago, it moved aggressively into building utility-scale solar projects that use its panels.

That was a great move for First Solar, which has built and sold some of the biggest projects in the US, supplying about two-thirds of its revenue.

Now it's getting back into rooftop solar, but this time solar PV instead of thin-film. It is buying a little-known start-up, TetraSun, which has 14 employees.

When First Solar led on thin-film the technology was viewed as the successor to solar PV because the manufacturing process was so much cheaper - it doesn't use polysilicon and can be printed on sheets instead of separate glass modules.

Although TetraSun uses polysilicon, its manufacturing costs are lower than average because it uses copper electrodes rather than silver, eliminates some processing steps and has a cell efficiency of 21%. The company has raised $12 million in equity investments and got a $2.3 million SunShot grant from the Department of Energy.

Just one company has a higher PV cell efficiency - the leader in the field, SunPower at 26%.

First Solar says it will begin commercial-scale manufacturing in the second half of 2014 and plans to build a 25-50 megawatt plant in Japan.

This week, First Solar announced guidance for 2013 revenue, far exceeding analyst expectations. It says it will sell 1.6-1.8 gigawatts of thin-film panels this year, generating revenue of $3.8-$4 billion with margins ranging from 20-22%.

Once again, it's able to lower manufacturing costs, down to $0.63- $0.66 per watt in 2013, and to $0.40 per watt by 2017. 

And once again, it broke through its previous industry-leading thin-film cell efficiencies, this time rising from its previous record of 14.4% to 16.1%.

Shares jumped 50% and trading had to be temporarily halted because of the volatility.

First Solar recently acquired Solar Chile to enter the South American market and is expanding aggressively into India, where it hopes to claim up to 20% of the market. It was selected to build the first solar farm in Dubai and is involved in Australia's two biggest solar PV projects, and is focusing attention on Thailand and Indonesia.

The company has a global development pipeline of 3 GW under contract to utilities, with 2 GW under construction.



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