First Solar world record for CdTe solar brings thin-film closer to silicon

First Solar world record for CdTe solar brings thin-film closer to siliconOn July 26, First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR) announced that it set a new world record for cadmium-telluride (CdTe) thin-film photovoltaic cells that are 17.3 percent efficient at converting sunlight into electricity as verified by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The record helps bring thin-film photovoltaic efficiency closer to silicon photovoltaics.

At present, the most efficient commercially available photovoltaics are SunPower Corp.’s (NASDAQ: SPWRA) E20 modules which are at least 20 percent efficient. First Solar’s 17.3 percent efficient cell won’t be appearing in their modules tomorrow.

The new cell was made on the company’s standard production line using a different process, said spokesperson Ted Meyer. He could not disclose how the process was different from the current manufacturing process.

"This leap forward in R&D supports our efficiency roadmap for our production modules and will recalibrate industry expectations for the long-term efficiency potential of CdTe technology," said Dave Eaglesham, First Solar’s chief technology officer.

It’s been a while since any company beat the 16.7 percent efficiency for CdTe solar cells. That was set in 2001, according to First Solar. Even now, First Solar’s production modules are a far cry from that point.

“The average efficiency of First Solar modules produced in the first quarter of 2011 was 11.7 percent, up from 11.1 percent a year earlier,” the company said in a press release.

Overall NREL has measured First Solar modules at up to 13.4 percent efficiency levels, just shy of the 13.5 percent efficiency First Solar measured its module at. By the end of 2014 the company plans to produce modules between 13.5 percent efficient and 14.5 percent efficient.

The efficiency breakthrough also puts First Solar ahead of another competitor in the thin-film space, Energy Conversion Devices’ (NASDAQ: ENER) Uni-Solar division. Uni-Solar, which produces thin-film amorphous-silicon based photovoltaics, announced roughly two weeks ago that in tests its cells reached 16.3 percent efficiency.

As with First Solar, the more efficient cells won’t be in Uni-Solar’s new production modules this year.

“These are lab efficiencies,” said Michael Schostak, spokesman for Uni-Solar. “We hope to be able to commercialize that 16 percent efficiency within the next couple years.”

Since thin-film modules are less efficient than many silicon photovoltaics, they need more surface area to produce an equivalent amount of electricity, making them less ideal for smaller spaces like home roofs. But thin-film photovoltaics can be less expensive to produce since less energy and materials are used to produce them. So as their efficiency levels increase, they’re likely to give their silicon counterparts a greater run for their money.

Image courtesy of First Solar.