First Solar: The Standard Bearer of American Solar Innovation

ManufacturingAs you read this, several large sheets of glass are entering a hi-tech, automated production line in Northwest Ohio. Over the next three-and-a-half hours, these sheets of glass will be turned into a fully functioning photovoltaic (PV) solar module, capable of converting the photons in sunlight into clean, reliable solar electricity.

At the heart of the module is a semiconductor known as CadTel. Produced from the byproducts of mining operations, a layer of semiconductor thirty-three times thinner than a human hair is safely encapsulated between two reinforced sheets of glass fully capable of withstanding even the most inhospitable conditions.

This thin film technology was developed in Ohio and is uniquely American. Headquartered in Arizona, First Solar is the only American company in the Solar Module Super League – the list of the world’s ten largest solar module manufacturers compiled by PV Tech magazine. The modules coming off the production line in Northwest Ohio were designed and developed at First Solar’s research and development centers in California and Ohio. Significantly, Ohio is now home to the largest solar module manufacturing footprint in the Western Hemisphere.

Today, First Solar has shipped over 25-gigawatts (GW) of solar modules around the world. Put into perspective, that’s equivalent to approximately 100 average-sized, 250-megawatt (MW) coal power plants. Internationally, from Japan to France and in several countries in between, millions of American-designed solar modules go to work each day, reliably generating clean electricity from sunlight.

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Here at home, in the United States, First Solar modules are helping American corporations and communities make the most of each day, while lowering their carbon impacts. From supporting data centers that enable the cloud and social media platforms with cleaner solar electricity, to powering communities and innovation, First Solar’s technology helps deliver the lifeblood of America: electricity.

While First Solar now stands alone in being able to scale a differentiated, American-designed solar product successfully, it was not always alone. The first working solar cell was created in New Jersey over half a century ago. A decade ago, a family photo of American solar manufacturers would have shown a crowded picture. It has since thinned out as manufacturers first struggled and then failed to compete against China’s dominance of solar panel manufacturing.


First Solar’s ability to thrive in a challenging global market place is the direct result of its early decision to place innovation at the heart of its business. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fact that it has spent over $1 billion in R&D to perfect its product, one of the highest cumulative investments in innovation that the industry has ever seen.

And while the bulk of the world’s solar panels are manufactured in China, where seven of the ten largest solar manufacturers are headquartered, First Solar has doubled down on its commitment to America by expanding its manufacturing footprint in Ohio.

As First Solar continues to build on its track record as America’s most successful solar company, it continues to innovate.

Innovation takes the form of the highly-automated process you read about earlier that has more in common with manufacturing flat-screen TVs than it does with a conventional solar panel produced in China. It comes in the form of an industry-leading recycling system, developed in Ohio, which allows 90 percent of the materials in a decommissioned module to be recovered and reused as glass containers, bicycle handles, shoe soles, and in new modules. It also comes in the form of the unique packaging that ensures that these large modules are safely transported to often remote sites while minimizing the amount of waste.

As the standard-bearer of American solar innovation, First Solar looks back at a proud legacy, and forward to a bright future.


Explainer: The Photon’s Journey

A photon is a particle that has no mass, travels at the speed of light, and carries the energy present in all electromagnetic radiation, including microwaves, visible light, ultraviolet light, and x-rays. Each photon begins its journey at the very heart of the sun, a product of nuclear fusion at its core that could take as many as 170,000 years to rise to the surface of the star. Once free from the solar atmosphere it takes only eight minutes to travel Earth, a journey of over 91 million miles. When these photons strike a First Solar module they liberate free electrons from the CadTel semiconductor material, converting solar radiation into Direct Current (DC) electricity. This is known as the photovoltaic effect, and allows us to reliably generate clean, with no noise and no emissions.