National Grid seals 2GW US thin-film deal with First Solar for cross-country build

First Solar has signed a framework agreement with National Grid Renewables to supply 2GW of US-sourced cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin-film modules in 2024-25 for a raft of projects in development across the country.

Contract details and the names of the PV projects involved were not made public by the two companies, which began partnering a decade ago on multiple arrays including the 275MW Noble Solar now under construction in Texas, with125MWh storage being built onsite.

“We share a common view on the need to create a sustainable energy future,” said Nathan Franzen, vice president of development at National Grid Renewables, an independent power producer with battery storage, solar, and wind projects in the US.

CdTe is a PV technology that uses cadmium telluride in a thin semiconductor layer to absorb and convert sunlight into electricity. Most solar cells are made of crystalline silicon.

Designed and developed at its R&D centres in California and Ohio, First Solar is the only US company among the 10 largest global solar manufacturers. It is investing $680m to expand domestic manufacturing capacity by 3.3GW annually in northeastern Ohio.

When fully operational next year, the three plants there will have 6GW capacity, believed to be more than any vertically integrated solar manufacturing complex outside of China.

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President Joe Biden’s administration has sought to encourage global solar supply chain companies to either re-shore or set up operations in the US.

The move is aimed at reducing dependence on China for polysilicon and wafers, and Southeast Asia for module assembly and finished panels, and later creating a self-sufficient manufacturing supply chain.

Some of the raw materials are either very costly or unavailable in the US and sourcing parts of the module supply chain is 30-40% more expensive than in Southeast Asia. Building plants there for aluminium extrusion, cell processing, or glass for panels, for example, can take two or three times as long in the US.

The administration anticipates that solar will emerge as the dominant renewable energy technology by the end of this decade and could account for as much as 40% of the nation’s electricity supply by 2035 with aggressive cost reductions, supportive policies, and large-scale electrification.

First Solar was critical of Biden’s controversial decision earlier this month to suspend tariffs on cheap solar panels from Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam for two years.

The move came as the Department of Commerce was investigating a complaint that some Chinese-branded panels and cells entering the US from those nations are using cheap components made in China to cut costs and circumvent existing US duties in place since 2012 on panels imported directly from the Asian superpower.

Fearing the administration could impose retroactive tariffs if it found the plants were set up to dodge US levies, domestic installers halted imports, causing an acute supply shortfall for projects in construction and under development here.

Biden defended his action as necessary to ensure availability of product for about 24GW of solar capacity at risk of not getting built and to protect jobs, while pledging the probe would continue even though application any retroactive tariffs emerging from it would be delayed.

First Solar slammed the move as directly undermining “American solar manufacturing by giving unfettered access to China’s state-subsidised solar companies for the next two years.”

The company stated: “This sends the message that companies can circumvent American laws and that the US government will let them get away with it as long as they’re backed by deep-pocketed political pressure campaigns.”

The company also criticised Biden’s decision to invoke the wartime Defense Production Act to accelerate development of domestic solar manufacturing capacity through federal loans and grants, contending that is “an ineffective use of taxpayer dollars and falls well short of a durable solar industrial policy”.

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