Exclusive: First Solar’s FFO2 approaching full ramp up

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First Solar management hope that the new FFO2 plant will be operating at full capacity by next month, which will bring the two facilities at the Frankfurt (Oder) site to a combined capacity of 497 megawatts (MW).

600 new jobs have been created at the new facility, doubling the number of First Solar manufacturing jobs in the region.

As a part of the process, First Solar has also reported that parts of the FFO1 plant will be modernized, bringing it in line with FFO2 by the end of the year. The First Solar "Smart Copy" principle whereby each fab worldwide is built to the same specifications, has been employed at the Frankfurt (Oder) site.

With seemingly more space than the immediately adjacent FFO1 plant, the new Cadmium Teluride (CdTe) module plant is part of the company’s drive to reduce cost-per-watt production in the face of trying market conditions. One way First Solar is pursuing this goal is through increased automatization of the module packaging process.

Expansion in a challenging market

When questioned about First Solar’s performance in the current environment of rapidly falling module prices, managing director of Manufacturing Frankfurt (Oder) Burghard von Westerholt told pv magazine that while companies were being put "under pressure" under the current market conditions, First Solar’s expansion plans were continuing to be realized.

Repeatedly describing the market as "challenging", von Westerholt said that while falling prices would test many manufacturers, First Solar will not enhance its present cost reduction and efficiency roadmaps.

At present, First Solar reports production costs of USD0.75 cents per watt with its 2009 roadmap indicating that by 2014, costs should be reduced to between USD0.63 and 0.52 cents. Already now Tier One chinese manufacturers offer modules below 0.70 euro cents/watt (USD0.96 cents).

A crucial part of First Solar’s cost-per-watt reduction strategy was the pursuit of further efficiency gains. At present, First Solar produces modules with an efficiency of 11.7 percent, although efficiencies of 17.1 percent, using its CadTel technology, have been achieved in laboratory conditions. The competition with CIGS modules of Solar Frontier is also considered to be intense, with Solar Frontier producing modules with an efficiency of 12.6 percent.

Von Westerholt also told pv magazine that the company’s decision to remove sales restrictions, allowing installers of smaller commercial consumers to purchase First Solar modules – the system-size restriction of 30 kilowatts (kW) to ten – had paid off for the company in European markets. Although an indication that the company is facing slow demand is that it had to revise downwards its 2011 guidance.

A limiting factor as to whether First Solar supplies even smaller projects such as residential installations, is the company’s collection and recycling program. If many small installations are supplied, the logistics of the program would become significantly more complicated and costly.

The Frankfurt managing director also maintained that under the current market "phase", there is a danger that quality will be compromised, damaging photovoltaic’s wider reputation.

First Solar aims at quality

As a part of the new FFO2 facility, a new quality control center has been built, in which a team of more than 50 technicians will carry out a range of testing on the CadTel modules. Petra Wagner, the director of Quality Control Europe, emphasised that First Solar conducts a range of tests above and beyond some International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) standards, for example dynamic static tests.

The laboratory includes flash testing and snow weight stations, and UV and weather testing chambers located in another part of the testing facility. There are plans to expand the number of such chambers and Wagner claims the First Solar quality assurance program is one of the most rigorous in the industry.

Wagner also took pv magazine into First Solar’s expanded recycling facilities at the Frankfurt (Oder) site, where the panels are crushed, acid washed and broken down for material recycling.

Another feature of the First Solar plants is that they both feature rooftop photovoltaic arrays. Installing arrays in an industrial setting is often a challenge, but the first solar team have put installed a 1.3 MW array on FF01 and 1.5 MW on FF02.

The FF02 facility will be officially inaugurated in November.