Leading global photovoltaic (PV) energy solutions provider First Solar has installed over 8 GW of major utility-scale renewable energy around the world. Considered an industry leader in its field, the company is looking to introduce and share its technology with the Southern African mining market, writes Laura Cornish.

Since its establishment in 1999, the Nasdaq-listed company’s installation base is growing rapidly as the demand for clean, reliable and efficient renewable energy technology gains popularity and recognition. The success of the world’s leading provider of comprehensive PV solar energy solutions, speaks for itself with 7 GW of modules produced and a contracted pipeline of 3 GW.

South Africa is currently going through a major transformational period as it works to diversify its current energy mix. The region is desperate for clean energy, especially major industrial energy users such as the mining industry, whose future production profiles remain dependent on energy supply from Eskom-alternative sources.

Having established itself so successfully around the globe, First Solar is now looking to make its mark in Southern Africa – and South Africa in particular. The company has established a local office in August 2012 and appointed energy expert Johan Cilliers as regional director for the sub-Saharan African region.

Cilliers’ professional career has been spent in the energy sector, working most often with the mining industry, which recently includes working at Eskom and General Electric. He brings extensive local industry experience to the First Solar group and is working to introduce, showcase and position First Solar on the African map.

“We are here to help Africa and its biggest energy consumers find solutions to their power constraint difficulties. We are ready to share our knowledge and work closely with the local sector to meet its pressing energy needs,” Cilliers states.

Why PV, why First Solar?

First Solar is not just another PV player. It has spent years researching, developing and refining its record-holding thin film technology, which is considered one of the best in the world.

Nicholas Strevel, First Solar technical sales manager, outlines the multiple benefits that PV technology has to offer. “First and foremost, it converts sunlight directly into DC energy without lengthy or complicated processes.”

Other advantages include:

  • it is cost competitive in most markets
  • it can be installed modularly and added to the grid quickly
  • it uses bankable technology
  • it helps stabilise the grid
  • it does not use any water when in operation (like concentrated solar power)
  • it can be used in different applications such as utility-scale power plants and off-grid diesel/hybrid systems,
  • and it helps reduce the region’s CO2 emissions

In addition to the general benefits of PV, First Solar has taken the technology to a whole new level. By gaining industry-leading capabilities across the entire solar value chain, to become the world’s leading provider of PV energy solutions, First Solar is able to offer cost competitive prices. “We manufacture black, uniform panels comprising two thick sheets of glass with a thin plastic middle inner sheeting and no frame. Thanks to a streamlined, fully automated process, we can manufacture panels in just two and a half hours – substantially faster than the process required to manufacture conventional crystalline silicon panels,” Strevel continues.

Matt Merfert, Middle East and Africa EPC director, explains what he believes to be one of the company’s leading technological innovations: the single axis tracker. “Unlike conventional trackers that use a centralised motor to rotate large PV panel quantities, we use a distributed actuation architecture, which in essence means many smaller motors are distributed across the site.”

This has numerous benefits, including:

  • minimal impact of any single point failure
  • eliminates emergency repairs
  • no row-to-row links, making construction and operation easy
  • not impacted by soil setting
  • obstruction sensing at row level
  • high resolution data/visuals, which equates to fast and precise diagnostics
  • repairs are inexpensive, requiring only hand tools and a few minutes
  • the design provides the highest mechanical availability and the lowest operations and maintenance of any tracker technology.

Merfert does not deny that PV technology is reliant on the sun, “but we really are part of a larger, complex system, and because we don’t rely on magnets or spinning turbines, we can contribute to voltage stability. Our systems are rugged enough to withstand extreme weather conditions (wind, hail, heat), but are complex enough to predict weather patterns and can even increase output from unaffected areas when cloud cover spots occur.”

Compensating South Africa’s biggest challenge

From a financial point of view, First Solar understands renewable energy and PV associated risks, which are especially high in South Africa where investor uncertainty is high in a new market.

“Because our installation base is so high, clients can rest assured that from a technological perspective, First Solar offers very little risk. Financially, our balance sheet is over US$1 billion (R10.11 billion) and our market cap is US$4 billion. Because our solutions cover the entire PV value chain, from studies through to financing, constructing, operating and maintaining, we can solve any problem,” says Stewart Bewley, First Solar project financier. He adds that, once installed, a First Solar power plant can produce electricity at a rate that would be cost-competitive to power supplied by utilities companies in as little as five years.

First Solar has achieved system availabilities of over 99% for the fleet of utility-scale PV plants under operation. Because repairs and maintenance takes place at night, availability is not affected at all. Plants are engineering for 25 years plus and this year the company will celebrate the ongoing successful operation of its oldest installation, which has been operational for 18 years.

Meeting the needs of the sub-Saharan African mining sector

While First Solar will participate in goverment’s third round of independent power producer tenders, it is predominately focused on providing customised solutions for individual clients.

“The mining industry has come a long way since 2008 when South Africa’s energy crisis became a reality. Despite their progress, I believe there are still a lot of inefficiencies that the industry and government must work to overcome,” Cilliers reveals.

One of his priorities for the mining sector is to provide PV systems that can be run in conjunction with installed energy bases. “Many mining companies in Africa run on diesel-driven generators, which are very costly to operate. By running a PV plant in the day, we can curtail a lot of generator and fuel costs. We are already looking at a number of projects in this area, where the target is stretching base load supply.”

Combatting another area of concern, Cilliers explains that First Solar opted to work with selected EPC companies for plant construction. “We want to teach and transfer our knowledge. We want to develop inter-country relationships and help Africa to work together and build infrastructure for its people and create jobs.”

“Our purpose is not just to be profitable and successful, but also to help the industry build its expertise. Mining companies should have the option to purchase our power and not have to pay for the plant that produces it. This forms a large component of our PV energy plan.”

According to a 2012 UN report, Africa’s solar energy market will be worth USD$ 57 billion by 2020.  “If only 10% of this amount is realistic, the opportunities are still huge.”

Looking ahead to the remainder of 2013, Cilliers has made rapid progress. The company is already hiring local energy experts and Cilliers is optimistic about taking on its first projects.


Case studies

Agua Caliente solar project – Yuma County, Arizona, US

First Solar constructed a 290 MW solar project located on 2 400 acres of previously disturbed farmland. The Agua Caliente project, initially developed by NextLight Renewable Power, is now being completed by First Solar, which acquired NextLight on 12 July 2010. On 3 August 2011, NRG Energy acquired the Agua Caliente project and on 18 January 2012, MidAmerican Renewables acquired a 49% stake in the project.

First Solar will continue to build, operate and maintain the project. When fully operational, the project will generate enough clean solar energy to serve the needs of about 100 000 average homes per year, displacing approximately 220 000 t of CO2 annually – the equivalent of taking about 40 000 cars off the road.

Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park – Dubai, United Arab Emirates

First Solar is constructing a 13 MW DC solar PV power plant for the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) in the United Arab Emirates. Under the terms of the agreement, First Solar is providing engineering, procurement and construction services, as well as its advanced thin-film PV modules.

The solar PV power plant is the first phase of the landmark Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, named after the leader of the Emirate of Dubai, an AED 12 billion (R32.75 billion) project that is expected to eventually cover 48 km² and produce 1 000 MW of clean energy for the national grid using both PV and solar thermal technology.

Once completed, the 13 MW power plant is expected to generate more than 22 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year, on average, enough to meet the average annual electricity needs of more than 500 local households. Electricity generated by the power plant on average will displace more than 14 000 metric tons of CO2 annually, equivalent to removing 1 600 cars from the road every year.

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