A new player appears in American thin-film cadmium telluride solar module manufacturing

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American manufacturing of thin-film cadmium telluride (CdTe) solar panels has been the sole domain of First Solar for the last decade — but now, an Ohio-based competitor has joined the fray.

Enter Toledo Solar. Formed via a $30 million initiative led by The Atlas Venture Group, Toledo solar has set up it’s flagship manufacturing facility in the old Willard & Kelsey Solar Group building in Perrysburg, Ohio. Willard & Kelsey was another CdTe aspirant that fell, in part, due to First Solar’s dominance.

The 300,000 square foot facility features an annual manufacturing capacity of 100 MW and employs 25 people, with plans for the workforce to reach 70 by year’s end. The company also shares that, due to demand projections, Toledo Solar will reach an annual manufacturing output of 850 MW by 2026.

Carving a niche

And while the company posts a gaudy claim that it already has “over $800 million in purchase orders for solar panels, power converters and energy storage systems,” those orders are likely not going to become a wedge in First Solar’s market.

Unlike First Solar, Toledo Solar will be operating not in the utility-scale solar space, but rather in the residential and commercial markets.

“We recognize the void in the non-utility solar markets that have been underserved by silicon solar panels. ‘Cad-Tel’ is clearly a better option.  We are excited to lead this investment in Toledo and continue to push ‘Cad-Tel’ solar technology forward,” said Aaron Bates, chairman of The Atlas Venture Group.

Smaller-scale solar has long been the bane of CdTe modules. Typically, CdTe panels have less power and lower efficiency without the benefit of significantly lower cost, when compared to crystalline-silicon. Even though the technology offers lower degradation rates and higher resistances to shading, having to cover a larger area and spend more to achieve comparable generation has always been a considerable hurdle.

“Our group spent about 18 months on due diligence before we actually decided to move forward and make this investment,” shared Bates. “We approached this full-boat. We brought in every expert we could to investigate before we decided to do this… This wasn’t like a passion project, or that one of us invented cad-tel in our garage. We went about this with an institutional and financial perspective.”

A better option?

That lofty claim that “‘Cad-Tel’ is clearly a better option,” is one that will be tested immediately. Toldeo Solar shares that the company’s panels offer 16.5% efficiency, coming in at a size of 60 x 120 cm. The panels, dubbed ‘Tier 1,’ are assumed to produce 115 W. This size, efficiency and power rating puts the panels in-line with First Solar’s series 4.

It is not just the company that has high hopes for the modules, either.

“Toledo Solar has excellent technology,” said Prof. Michael Heben, Director of the University of Toledo’s Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization. “First Solar is the domestic leader in utility-scale solar, and Toledo Solar can fill that same role for non-utility installations.”

Toledo University, along with the Ohio Federal Research Network were chosen to evaluate the equipment and technology at the Perrysburg, Ohio location.

As for the technology match-up between Toledo and First, thin-film expert Markus Beck told pv magazine, “The degree of differentiation is likely very small and to a large degree necessitated by the intellectual property space First Solar has made off-limits to competitors.” He said that the back contact could have some level of differentiation, as could the module architecture, albeit to a lesser extent. Additionally, a fair bit of module aspects are in the public domain.