Sujoy Ghosh, Country Head, First Solar India.
First Solar announced 1 GW DC of modules shipped to India to projects making it the largest PV thin-film module technology provider. What projects are you part of?
Most of the large IPP's, who plan to own the assets on a long term basis are our clients in India for PV modules. Our recent orders include projects being developed by Azure Power, Adani Power, Renew, Fortum, CESC, and Bhoruka Power.
You conduct sale of modules to third parties. How does this work out? What's your perspective on the market?
Typically all of the imported modules are sold directly from our overseas entity. This is true for all major manufacturers. The Indian solar PV market is expected to maintain a growth momentum over the next three years based on the strong policy initiatives (at the Federal Government level) and the transparent allocation method adopted by the government. This is against a backdrop of stagnant or contracting demand in most of the other large solar markets in the same time frame (China, Japan, and Europe), as the markets being driven by feed-in-tariffs would eventually contract given the competitive dynamics in the power industry.
Thin-film are less efficient than conventional c-Si technology. What improvements has this space seen to maximise energy yield and deliver more performance?
It's a misnomer that Thin Film PV modules are less efficient than conventional poly silicon technology. Today First Solar's CdTe thin film PV modules are being sold at an average efficiency of 16.8 per cent which is at par or marginally better than the average efficiency of poly-crystalline silicon PV modules. However the name plate efficiency only equalizes the land use and BOS between the two module offerings. The real world performance of any PV module technology is a function of (a) temperature co-efficient, (b) low light performance, and (c) response to shift in spectrum of light. On all these counts Thin Film technologies in general have superior characteristics as opposed to silicon based technologies simply due to the material characteristics of the semi-conductor being used. Hence even at name plate efficiency parity, First Solar's CdTe thin film PV modules would deliver 5-9 per cent higher yield at the same location as compared to any other Poly Silicon PV module in hot and humid conditions that prevail at most locations between the two tropics globally.
The market-share of thin-film has been increasing very slowly, what is your strategy in this regard?
Thin Films only have a 10-12 per cent share in the global manufacturing footprint across all PV technologies. This is because the technology is highly patented and the manufacturing needs to be fully integrated as opposed to Poly Silicon manufacturing where the ingot, wafer, cell and module manufacturing could be split into batch process. Bottom-line is that there is a lot less Thin Film product available in the market today. But as the deployment of solar increases in areas between the two tropics and the real-time energy production starts to command a premium over name-plate capacity, thin film manufacturers would need to expand their manufacturing footprint to target the growing demand that's more conducive to their technology. Specifically in India, First Solar has an overall share of 10 per cent today, and is amongst the top three module technology providers, as the rest of the Poly Silicon PV manufacturing industry is highly fragmented with multiple players offering variants of the same core technology.
What has your focus and investment on R&D been like?
First Solar has cumulatively spent over $1 billion in R&D activities between 2002-2016, with an average spend of $125 million in the last five years. This makes the company invest in R&D a lot more than the operating profit of some of our competitors. The impact of this is evident in the fact that between 2012-2016, First Solar improved cell efficiency three times faster than equivalent improvements in Poly Silicon cell efficiency. The company's focus is not limited to improvements in efficiency but also on long term reliability of the PV modules. We were one of the first to achieve certification of its technology for TUV's long term sequential and thresher testing standards as well as SGS Lab's Atlas 25 certifications - which measure long term degradation at conditions that are 2-4x harsher than the standard IEC test protocols. First Solar's endeavour is to offer world leading reliability and performance under harsh conditions to deliver the lowest life-cycle cost to the asset owners.
The company is also involved in development of utility scale PV solar assets, however land requirement is a stumbling block. What can be done to alleviate this?
The solar park policy formulated by GoI is an excellent mechanism to address the large scale projects at a single location. However our view is that large mega solar parks with federal transmission utility interconnects, would co-exist with relatively smaller scale (10-30 MW) distributed solar, that will leverage existing transmission infrastructure at the state level. Land acquisition locally would require simplification of land conversion rules as well as electronic process for all the interim approvals. Some of the states like Telangana and AP have come out with industrial policies that have simplified the process of land acquisition for industrial purposes and have positively impacted the overall process from an ease of doing business standpoint.
Delays add to the project cost, making developers wary. How do you see the investment climate in India?
One of the issues that we have been consistently tabling with the MNRE and state nodal agencies is to differentiate in the timelines and tariffs between solar parks and non-solar park projects. While the tariff determination is a larger discussion depending on the transmission and park development charges, at least on the timelines, the non-solar park projects should be allowed a minimum of six months more than the solar parks as the developers need time for the land acquisition in non-solar parks. However, as stated earlier the solar parks do provide a complete de-risked development model for investors, and the positive impact is evident in the ability of the investors to bid for more competitive tariffs from these parks.
It's an excellent initiative in the context of demonstrating how the government can improve ease of doing business in India.
Kindly share with us First Solar's strategy in India. What are your future plans? India continues to be one of our key global markets and the company would continue to invest in capacity and capability in India to maintain a meaningful share of the PV market.
- JOCELYN FERNANDES
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