First Solar Inc. is lighting up the renewable energy market. The Tempe, Ariz.-based company recorded $3.4 billion in net sales in 2012, up $600 million from the prior year. The 14-year-old, 5,600-employee photovoltaic (PV) solar firm is uniquely diversified, doing everything from development, manufacturing and engineering-procurement-construction (EPC) to maintenance, operation and financing.

"We have a vertically integrated development team that enables us to compete at a higher level because we control the supply chain," says Justin Bloch, First Solar's vice president of EPC project management for the Americas. "We also keep a running database from project to project, constantly sharing information, which enables us to learn from our experience."

Sunny Solutions

First Solar's turnkey knowledge has fueled innovation that in February led to a world record 18.7% efficiency rate for thin film cadmium telluride (CdTe) semiconductor PV cells, which is 1.4% higher than a year ago. The CdTe technology has a superior temperature coefficient with less heat loss than crystalline silicon cells for 11.3% more peak power and 9% more energy per kWh based on a typical southwestern 500-MW array, as verified by the U.S. Energy Dept.'s National Renewable Laboratory.

The firm combines cadmium, a mining waste byproduct, with tellurium to create 75-watt to 77-watt-rated thin film solar panels, which pay for themselves in under a year through energy savings, the company says. First Solar also recycles up to 95% of CdTe semiconductor materials for reuse in new solar panels, which the firm makes in less than 2.5 hours at its Ohio manufacturing facility through a continuous, automated process. The breakthrough helps lower production costs to $0.64 per watt, making First Solar more commercially competitive.

"On a year-on-year basis, we reduced average standard balance of system costs by approximately 14%," First Solar CFO Mark Widmar told investors on Feb. 26. "These improvements are a direct result of our continued investment in research and development efforts to improve module conversion efficiency as well as improve engineering, procurement and construction techniques."

First Solar has manufactured more than 90 million advanced thin-film PV modules (groups of assembled solar cells) since 2002, resulting in 7 GW of electrical capacity, or enough to power 3.73 million homes. The environmental impact equals 992,461 fewer cars or 126,729,942 trees planted. First Solar spends more than $1 billion annually at its over 1,000 U.S. suppliers across 35 states.

Bigger Is Better

In 2012, First Solar surpassed 250 MW of grid-connected AC power at the $1.8-billion Agua Caliente Solar Project, making it the largest operating PV plant in the world. Located on 2,400 acres east of Yuma, Ariz., the project created 450 construction jobs and consists of 5.2 million fixed-tilt-angle First Solar PV modules and 400 inverters. NRG Solar, Carlsbad, Calif., is the developer, with First Solar as EPC contractor and PV supplier. Agua Caliente will expand to 290 MW upon completion in 2014.

First Solar is developing the $2-billion Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., the largest solar project under construction in the world, according to the company. The 550-MW installation will finish construction in early 2015, generating 1,100-GWh of renewable energy annually for Pacific Gas & Electric Co. under a 25-year power-purchase agreement. First Solar is also the project's EPC contractor and PV supplier for Phoenix-based owner MidAmerican Solar Inc.

PV demand has been aided by states like California, which requires that 33% of a utility's energy come from renewable sources by 2020. First Solar has six projects totaling 1.4 GW of generation capacity being built in Southern California alone. The $1.46-billion, 550-MW Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, for instance, is taking shape on 4,410 acres east of Palm Springs.

The four-year project consists of 8.8 million ground-mounted, 4-ft by 2-ft thin-film First Solar PV modules, each weighing 27.5 lb. The two-phase project, employing 630 construction workers, will power 160,000 homes. First Solar has purchase agreements with PG&E and Southern California Edison for 300 MW and 250 MW, respectively. First Solar is the developer, PV maker and EPC contractor. The company will additionally operate and maintain the facility upon completion in early 2015.