28 September 2021


ESG Solar PV Manufacturing Thin-film modules Spain

First Solar Looks to Spain with Sustainability on the Agenda

Author: Jason Deign

America’s largest solar company — and the Western Hemisphere’s largest vertically integrated solar manufacturer — pitches responsible solar in Spain.

The American module maker First Solar produces high-efficiency, low-carbon thin-film modules and has a track record spanning more than 16 years in European large-scale PV. And as the company looks to grow its global manufacturing capacity to 17 gigawatts (GW) by 2024, with new factories in the US and India, Spain has caught its attention.

In 2020, Spain’s PV market surpassed the 11 GW milestone. It is set to add 39 GW of PV capacity by the end of the decade.

“With its high insolation, ambitious renewable targets and regulatory framework, land availability and industrial know-how, Spain is one of the most attractive PV markets in the world,” says Luca Rigoni, First Solar’s business development manager for Spain.

The most powerful and eco-efficient thin film module to date

And at a time when the global agenda is increasingly dominated by social and environmental concerns and the pace of renewable energy infrastructure rollout increases, it is important to keep in mind the impact of the energy transition’s key enabling technologies, Rigoni says.

First Solar notes that its technology offers the lowest carbon and water footprints and fastest energy payback time in the solar market, resulting in significant CO2 savings over the lifecycle of a PV plant.

The Spanish lifecycle carbon footprint of First Solar thin-film modules, for example, is just 22 metric tons of CO2 equivalent per gigawatt hour (GWh) of capacity, compared to 74 metric tons for monocrystalline silicon panels. This means Spain could save 75,000 metric tons of CO2 a year per gigawatt of solar capacity built with First Solar modules, compared to monocrystalline silicon panels. That would be the equivalent of taking around 16,300 cars off the road.

Delivering more energy per watt

First Solar’s module technology offers an industry-leading temperature coefficient of -0.28% per degree Celsius, which means it can produce relatively more energy than conventional modules under high temperature conditions.

In addition, thanks to its superior spectral response, the modules produce more annual energy under high humidity conditions. “Our technology is ideally suited to the climate conditions in Spain and delivers significant energy yield advantages in the market,” Rigoni asserts.

Other technology features contribute to the panels’ high performance. First Solar’s thin-film modules are less sensitive to power loss from shading than crystalline silicon panels, which shut off disproportionately large sections of shaded and non-shaded panels due to their electrical design. First Solar modules are also inherently immune to the light-induced degradation and light- and elevated-temperature-induced degradation failure modes that affect crystalline silicon panels.

Finally, First Solar modules are immune to the power loss from cell cracking that can occur as a result of extreme weather events such as high winds and hailstorms. Thanks to these features, First Solar’s modules can deliver significantly more energy per installed watt than leading bifacial competitors over a project’s lifetime, claims Rigoni. And getting the best possible performance out of the panel is just part of the sustainability story.

Driving responsible solar      

“At First Solar, we have placed sustainability at the heart of everything we do from the very beginning, and produce what we call responsible solar,” says Rigoni. “Our focus is to not only meet industry standards, but to exceed them and to set new ones.”    

First Solar is clearly aiming to satisfy developers looking to meet the highest possible environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) standards.

Since 2009, First Solar has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions and water, waste and carbon intensity per watt of solar module produced. The company has done this by reducing resource use, switching to low-carbon options at its factories and improving module efficiency, manufacturing throughput and capacity utilization.

In 2020, First Solar joined RE100 — a global group of businesses aiming for 100% renewable energy consumption — and set a target of 2028 to eliminate fossil fuels from its power supplies. The company’s US operations will lead the way by going fully carbon free by 2026.

First Solar’s Series 6 module was the first PV product to be included in the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) register, a globally recognized and independently verified ecolabel for sustainable electronics.

In May this year, First Solar was the first among the world’s 10 largest solar manufacturers to join the Responsible Business Alliance, the largest industry coalition dedicated to supporting the rights and well-being of workers and communities in the global supply chain. “First Solar has zero tolerance for forced labor,” Rigoni discloses. “We have no exposure to the ongoing issues around the production of polysilicon, as we do not use this material in our modules.”

How the solar industry is embracing ESG

Transparency and supply chain traceability are becoming more important in Spain as the government introduces mandatory carbon impact disclosures for solar projects and information requirements on forced labor for non-European Union products. “The current auction rules indicate that the winner shall provide information about the carbon footprint during the lifecycle of the PV plants,” notes Rigoni. “Given that Spain is aiming to reach net zero emissions by 2050, we welcome and congratulate this reporting requirement, which will set the stage for a more holistic and sustainable evaluation of technologies in the future.”

But even in the absence of regulation, he says, developers are increasingly concerned with meeting ESG targets. “Significant steps have been taken to improve the environmental footprint of solar power plants in Spain,” comments Rigoni. “There is increasing awareness and support in relation to the environmental impact of a PV plant in each phase of the development.”

This is not only driven by the evolving Spanish regulations but also by the experience of Spanish solar professionals working in other parts of the world, Rigoni says. Plus, it makes good business sense. “The application of best practices like responsible sourcing of ultra-low-carbon technologies and responsible use of land contributes to the value to a PV project and protects its social license,” Rigoni concludes.

This article was created in preparation for Solarplaza Summit Spain. Be the first to know when the new edition will be held by signing up for updates.