After being present in India for over a decade, the US-headquartered solar module manufacturer, First Solar, is building a manufacturing unit at Sriperumbudur near Chennai. Supported by an allocation of ₹1,170 crore from the government of India’s Production Linked Incentive scheme (PLI-2), First Solar is investing $684 million, with 70 per cent of the investment already made, to produce 3.5 GW of thin film modules in India. The plant is nearing production, and the first shipments are likely to occur in October.
First Solar’s Vice President and Country Managing Director – India, Sujoy Ghosh spoke to businessline’s M Ramesh about the company’s plans. Excerpts:
What is the status of the upcoming Sriperumbudur plant?
We are planning to start commercial production in the second half of 2023, after the product is certified for all relevant global and local technical standards, such as BIS. Initially, the throughput from the plant will be low, but as we ramp-up production, we expect that within a year, production will reach to the nameplate capacity of 3.5 GW per year. By October 2023, approximately a thousand people will be employed.
The crystalline solar world has moved very fast from poly to mono to mono-PERC and is getting into heterojunction and tunnel oxide passivated contact technologies. Where does ‘thin film’ fit in and what does its future hold?
Thin film photovoltaics represent the future of solar energy. With their performance advantages, lower environmental footprint, and vertically integrated manufacturing processes, thin film PV is the solution to many challenges faced in scaling up solar deployment to meet decarbonization targets.
Currently, First Solar’s thin film CadTel (Cadmium telluride) solar panels are the second most common solar panels worldwide. They differ from from crystalline silicon (c-Si) panels by not relying on Chinese c-Si supply chains. Additionally, the fully vertically integrated manufacturing processes used in thin film production allow for greater traceability, and lower carbon and water footprints. Moreover, CadTel has a proven energy advantage in hot and humid climates and can be recycled. First Solar is a pioneer in recycling solar panels, operating an advanced recycling program that recovers materials like aluminum, glass, and laminates, while providing closed-loop semiconductor recovery for use in new modules.
Significantly, thin film solar panels are in high demand with sophisticated project developers seeking to de-risk their project pipelines by placing multi-year, multi-gigawatt orders for First Solar’s thin film modules. Earlier this year, First Solar announced shipping 50 gigawatts of orders since it first starting production in 2002, and on our last earnings call, we announced an order backlog of almost 72 gigawatts, extending through 2029. This substantial backlog and unprecedented demand have prompted us to expand our manufacturing capacity in the US and India, aiming for over 20 gigawatts of global nameplate manufacturing capacity by 2025.
Looking ahead, we anticipate the development of tandem solar panels, which combine two semiconductors to maximize sunlight convertion into energy. While c-Si can be used as one layer of cells, it is not as integral to this future technology as thin films. While you can combine two different thin film semiconductors to form a tandem device, c-Si alone does not enable tandem technology.
What is your comment on solar manufacturing in India? Can we say that only thin-films can guarantee “freedom from China”?
Large-scale, high-volume manufacturing in India in the solar PV sector is just getting started as an outcome of the policy initiatives of the government which link solar capacity expansion to domestic manufacturing. Building vertically integrated semiconductor-to-module facilities require scale, which the Indian market offers, and it also takes time given the size and complexity of the process. The PLI incentives are structured to encourage full integration, and as the investments planned under the PLI scheme mature, India will achieve self-reliance across the entire value chain of PV.
From a technology standpoint, First Solar holds a unique position to manufacture solar PV modules for the India market, as they do not depend on the silicon value chain concentrated in China. Our highly differentiated semiconductor technology and vertically integrated manufacturing approach allow us to scale faster and be more cost-competitive compared to the silicon eco-system.
You said that First Solar’s capacity is booked till 2029. Does it mean that modules made in Sriperumbudur could be exported?
First Solar deploys the same process to produce the Series 7 PV modules in both the India and US factories. As a result, we do have the ability to export the product manufactured in India. However, the investment in manufacturing in India primarily aims to support the growing demand of solar PV modules within the country and foster true self-reliance for India’s sustainable energy future. We do have certain export obligations under the EPCG license, which we availed to import the plant and machinery. These obligations require us to export limited volumes during the initial six years of production.
First Solar has plants in Malaysia and Vietnam. Why one more in South Asia?
First Solar operates integrated module manufacturing facilities in Malaysia and Vietnam, which produce the Series 6+ module. The India facility will produce the Series 7 module, which has a larger format and a different mounting attachment as compared to the Series 6, while the underlying semiconductor device is identical. The close geographical proximity of these three manufacturing facilities allows us to optimize workforce development across locations and leverage established supply chain and component eco-systems. This ensures support for start-up and unplanned maintenance activities in the new location.