First Solar lands in Japan

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U.S.-based thin film manufacturer and power plant developer First Solar has announced its market entry into Japan, in the form of the 1.4 MW power plant. The company announced on Monday that it had begun construction of the Kitakyushu-shi project.

In announcing the market entry, First Solar Chief Commercial Officer Jospeh Kishkill said the company had begun its long-term strategic investment in Japan.

"This project illustrates First Solar’s capability to develop and build solar power plants in Japan."

The array will employ First Solar’s advanced technology cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin film PV modules.

The move is somewhat surprising in that it had previously been understood by the PV community that First Solar was locked out of supplying Japan because of the presence of cadmium in its CdTe thin film modules.

Cadmium has led to poisonings in Japan in the past. Mining operations in the early 20th century contaminated the Jinzu River with cadmium and other toxic metals. The element is also banned under the European Union’s Restriction on Hazardous Substances directive. First Solar modules have an exemption under the EU directive.

It appears a similar exemption has been obtained for First Solar to supply its modules to Japan. In a response to inquiries from pv magazine, First Solar Japan representatives have indicated that its modules "have been and are accepted for use in Japan."

The First Solar statement to pv magazine reads: "Independent research institutes, including Tokyo University, have studied and confirmed CdTe PV modules’ environmental benefits and safety. First Solar PV modules are considered the ecologically leading technology as they have the smallest carbon footprint, lowest air pollutant emissions and water use and fastest energy payback time of all PV technologies on a life cycle basis." These benefits and safety profile have led to the company’s CdTe modules acceptance in Japan, the company claims.

Solar industry analysts have previously speculated that an exemption to regulations prohibiting cadmium in building materials in Japan may be waved. In 2012, analyst Jesse Pichel wrote that while CdTe is not allowed in batteries Japan, this may not apply to solar modules. "As we have seen in Europe many countries are willing to give exceptions to solar panels as long as they pay for the proper disposal of the panels after 25 years."

First Solar did not provide any substantive details about the process it had to go through to attain the acceptance of its modules in Japan. Responding to a question about that posed by pv magazine, First Solar Japan simply replied: "It was the same as any other PV technology."

Rooftop play

While the ground mounted utility scale PV market in Japan has boomed under the country’s FIT regime since it came into effect in July 2012, long-term the market is thought to be predominately rooftop-based. Earlier this year, First Solar announced that it had acquired the high-efficiency PV cell startup TetraSun. Some PV industry watches had speculated that the acquisition would allow First Solar access to the Japanese market, bypassing any cadmium restrictions. However, given that its CdTe modules now appear free to be used in Japan, the TetraSun product looks set to be aimed exclusively at the rooftop sector in high value markets like Japan.

Earlier this year thin film analyst Shyam Mehta wrote in a post on the Greentechmedia website that the TetraSun product has the potential to deliver low-cost, high-efficiency PV modules. "TetraSun … [uses] copper as opposed to silver as a metallization solution," wrote Mehta.

Acquiring TetraSun and commercializing its technology could put First Solar right up there with Panasonic’s HIT and SunPower’s N-type all-back-contact modules in terms of having a high-efficiency rooftop product. In the same post Mehta wrote that Japan, "does not like cadmium in any form."

First Solar confirmed this rooftop strategy for TetraSun and informed pv magazine of a distribution deal for the product in Japan. "It [TetraSun] is an ideal solution for space-constrained applications, such as rooftop segment in Japan, which is where our current focus will be. We have also signed an agreement for the distribution of First Solar’s high efficiency and high quality solar PV modules in Japan through April 2015 with JX Nippon Oil & Energy Corporation."

First installation

There are no details from First Solar as to whether its 1.4 MW Kitakyushu-shi will be a ground mounted or commercial rooftop project. Construction is set to be completed in the first quarter of 2014.

First Solar has a 100% equity stake in the project and the Obayashi Corporation and the Yaskawa Electric Corporation are responsible for its construction.

Last week First Solar reaffirmed its commitment to the Japanese market despite indications from government representatives at the UN climate change talks in Warsaw that Tokyo would water down the country’s greenhouse gas emission targets.