EDITORIAL: Sunny days ahead

Increasing solar capacity

W hat makes First Solar a different company than other U.S. solar panel manufacturers?

Well, obviously, it's cadmium telluride. Who doesn't know that? But for the uninformed, like us, the Department of Energy helpfully defines cadmium telluride as a "material with bandgap energy that can be tuned from 1.4 to 1.5 (eV)."

Yeah, that's what we thought.

Okay, forget that. What's important to know is that cadmium telluride is nearly optimal for turning sunlight into electricity.

It's not magic, but at least for us, it might as well be.

The stuff is what First Solar uses instead of polysilicon, which is what most manufacturers of solar equipment use and why most manufacturing of the panels occurs on mainland China. Most important, the cadmium telluride stuff is what First Solar credits for its surviving over the past two decades while most manufacturing of solar equipment moved to Red China.

First Solar CEO Mark Widmar credits the billions of dollars in incentives for the solar industry in the U.S. provided in the Inflation Reduction Act, for the Tempe-based company's expansion. It's currently building its fifth U.S. factory in Louisiana, expanding in Ohio, where it has three plants, and building another plant in Alabama. It also has plants in Malaysia and Vietnam and is working on one in India, according to The New York Times.

If the world is going to be serious about combating climate change, experts say the capacity of solar power installed worldwide needs to increase 20 to 70 times.

According to the industry publication "Solar Facts and Advice," First Solar was the first to use cadmium telluride in an attempt to bring manufacturing costs below $1 per watt. Experts believe the price could go as low as a nickel per watt.

This would obviously change the solar game. But while ease of manufacturing and cadmium telluride's absorption of sunlight at an almost ideal wavelength--plus an abundance of cadmium--are pluses, as always, there's a drawback.

The second part of the compound cadmium telluride--not surprisingly called tellurium--is an extremely rare element. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, global tellurium production in 2007 was 135 metric tons. That not only limits the number of panels that can be produced, but requires mining, which is frequently subject to opposition from environmental groups.

However, if the bad news is that the world needs 20 to 70 times more installed solar to "eliminate" greenhouse gases, the good news is that elimination of greenhouse gases is not necessarily the goal. The goal should be reduction of the gases to a point that they're manageable, or negligible, in climate impact.

In the meantime, if First Solar's example is one that shows how panel manufacturing can create domestic jobs, the market for increased solar capacity is a good one and should be explored aggressively.