First Solar’s TetraSun siliconsolarphotovoltaic production line is officially in service. The line, located at the company’s Kulim, Malaysia manufacturing facility, has capacity for 100 megawatts of annual module production. This was initially reported in Daily Express, the "independent national newspaper of East Malaysia."

First Solar's spokesperson confirmed the news and noted that "a portion of the initial TetraSun production is allotted to customers in Japan; our global business development team will look for additional opportunities where appropriate," adding, "We are starting with limited production on this initial line and will ramp up as demand arises."

CEO James Hughes was in Kulim for the factory opening and to mark First Solar reaching 10 gigawatts of cumulative installed solar capacity, as per the report.

First Solar is a long-time thin-film solar manufacturer and vertically integrated solar project developer. The company moved into silicon with its acquisition of high-efficiency solar startup TetraSun in April 2013. This is the cadmium telluride vendor's first foray into silicon, although it has explored the CIGS material system. TetraSun was a fourteen-employee startup with $12 million from investors and little more than a pilot cell manufacturing plant when acquired by First Solar. Now, with the financial backing and manufacturing know-how of First Solar, the technology has made the move to large-scale commercialization.

The new high-efficiency product might enable First Solar to add rooftop and distributed generation sales to the more lumpy project revenue of its core utility-scale solar business.

First Solar has released a few details about TetraSun's technology in the past. Here's our most recent list.   

  • The cell design potentially allows efficiencies over 21 percent.
  • Cells are built using 156 mm n-type wafers, which have higher efficiencies than p-type monocrystalline cells because of their higher minority carrier lifetime  
  • The 156-mm wafers provide more active cell area per module and increased power output compared to 125-mm wafers  
  • The metallization process utilizes narrow copper electrodes of less than 50 μ, which yield better conductivity and less resistive losses than the industry-standard screenprinted silver fingers. Copper-plated metallization induces minimal stress on wafers, improving mechanical yield and reliability, according to the firm. (There are downsides to copper as well, however.)
  • Lower temperature coefficient (-0.3%/ °C) results in better energy production compared to traditional crystalline technologies (typical -0.45%/°C).
  • The design eliminates light-induced degradation and potential-induced degradation.

According to GTM Research's Senior Solar Analyst Shyam Mehta, "The use of copper metallization really does give TetraSun a shot at being a truly low-cost, high-efficiency technology." However, he cautioned that until now at least, there have been multiple barriers associated with commercializing copper as a metallization solution.

In a past presentation, First Solar CTO Raffi Garabedian said, "We're motivated to go out for a very high-efficiency cell technology -- but not at all cost." He continued: "We intentionally didn't acquire a company that has an advanced interdigitated back contact cell that can get [First Solar] up to 23 percent. Why? Because I don't think I can afford all those process steps it takes to make that cell and still sell into these markets. We took a very pragmatic approach to find the sweet spot between efficiency upside and the underlying cost structure of cell manufacture. We think we have that with this product."

"Why n-type? That's the only way you get up above 20 percent. Really, practically -- n-type is the only way you get there."

While First Solar has been ramping up its high-efficiency silicon, the landscape in that rarified sector has shifted a bit with SolarCity's acquisition of Silevo, another high-efficiency solar technology startup, and the rapid ramp of its 200-megawatt factory in Buffalo, New York. As we've reported, Silevo's device combines n-type substrates, thin-film passivation layers and a tunneling oxide layer that yields high conversion efficiencies.

But SolarCity's Silevo doesn't really compete with SunPower's reigning high-efficiency product or First Solar's TetraSun. As GTM Research's Shyam Mehta notes, "Being acquired by SolarCity provides Silevo with a dedicated internal customer -- essentially, captive demand -- and allows it to circumvent bankability hurdles it would otherwise have encountered due to its nascent technology and startup status. As such, Silevo won’t even be competing directly with other module suppliers. Its technology will be one part of the overall value proposition for SolarCity’s leased systems."

Breaking into a new market with a new technology is a daunting task, even for a leading vertically integrated solar player like First Solar. The company has shown that it knows how to ramp up manufacturing and optimize production on an enormous scale. But it has yet to confront the competitive downstream consumer solar channel and extend its marketing and sales to the homeowner or enterprise.