Technology

The Shape of Things

By Roger Bredder, First Solar September 11, 2017

First Solar re-imagines its PV product offering, based on proven technology

Co-Authored by Nicholas Strevel - Director, Global Technical Sales at First Solar

Late last year – just after Solar Power International 2016 (SPI) – First Solar strategically shifted to an accelerated development and manufacturing schedule for its next-generation Series 6 thin film PV module. Now on the verge of commercial availability, customer curiosity is growing. They ask: “Is now the time to consider Series 6? How will I benefit from this new offering?”

With a special “preview presence” at SPI 2017, we are eager to share a compelling story, one which we believe will be a game-changing development in the large-scale solar industry.

First Solar has long believed that smaller form factor doesn’t mean lesser performance. All prior generations of First Solar modules all shared one common characteristic – size. Traditionally about one third the size of typical silicon panels, our form factor has allowed for easier handling in the factory and swift installation by a single installer in the field. This formula was essential in a world where module price dominated system costs, and where our manufacturing equipment was built around a unique form factor.

However, our Advanced R&D group has always understood the challenges surrounding this strategic choice, and knew that the time would come when it would need to be reevaluated. What was the best path to the future – status quo or “upsize”?

Actually, that discussion started several years ago, but given the magnitude of expense and resources it takes to retool factories, we placed a priority on incremental enhancements to our existing module form. And we did this relentlessly, raising module efficiency from 14 percent to 17 percent in just a few years. The larger module form factor was still an important element of our future strategy and was first publicly introduced in early 2016.

Research and development of the Series 6 product and manufacturing process continued during the second half of 2016 and coincided with a dramatic and unprecedented industry-wide decline in module pricing. Faced with the challenging market conditions and given the progress made in Series 6 manufacturability, the time was right to accelerate the transition. It was time to reshape our future.

Transitioning to manufacturing next-generation technology required a next-generation approach. As we began to sketch out product attributes, we launched an intensive listening campaign with our customers, structure partners and EPC channel partners. Design of the new Series 6 product was going to require their direct input to ensure we designed and built a superior product for the market. Our goal was to jointly bring to life a PV module that minimized the cost of installation while retaining the attributes that historically made First Solar a bellwether for high quality utility-scale applications.

At times, this felt a bit like a “Goldilocks” approach. What was “too big”? What was “too small”? What was “just right”? From a manufacturing perspective, bigger IS better, but many data points suggested that larger size could be an issue at project sites, given the way modules are installed.

Turning to our partners in the field, we identified controlling factors that would help define maximum watts-per-lift while retaining two-person installation teams. We ran field simulations with several of our EPC partners, using prototype framed glass sheets with representative weight. Jointly reviewing human factors learnings and listening intently to our partners’ suggestions, we found a sweet spot for minimized cost of installation.

We turned as well to our structure partners, who told us they design their structures with the assumption that a PV module will have a perimeter frame. They also desired a product that minimized cardboard waste in the field, and arrived in a horizontally stacked pallet. It was clear that our new module would need to utilize a frame that allowed for ease of mounting and provided shipping benefits.

As a result, we’ve designed one of the most versatile frames in the industry, offering center mounting, top clamping, and an innovative new slot that provides the speed and cost-effectiveness of shared clamping with the security of bottom mounting.

We are confident the global EPC community has validated and confirmed First Solar’s Series 6 module will have among the lowest cost-per-watt-installed in the market. 

First Solar’s Series 6 is scheduled to be commercially available by mid-2018, but you can see it now at SPI 2017. We’ve partnered with a number of leading structure companies to showcase Series 6 modules, giving the industry a chance to view the shape of the future.

On-Demand Webinar: First Solar Series 6: Gaining Ground - The Rise of Thin Film PV

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