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21 September 2022

US policies support solar manufacture, grid interconnection

In another step forward for US solar manufacturing, Toledo Solar has announced it will expand its operations to 2.8 GW of production capacity by 2027. When we interviewed the company in March, it planned for only 800 MW by 2028, having been founded only in 2016 with its first production line operational in 2020. Toledo can be considered the “little brother” of First Solar for reasons of physical and technological proximity, but isn’t a subsidiary, and its Cadmium-Telluride (CdTe) modules are geared towards rooftop, not utility-scale.

As the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) rationally predicts, American silicon-based PV manufacturing will be developed starting from the furthest downstream elements, modules first, gradually working towards cells, wafers, and polysilicon once domestic customers are in place for each segment sequentially. That process will take through to 2030.

With Cadmium Telluride the story is different – there’s no polysilicon, which is the furthest downstream supply chain element, as well as being the most capital-intensive, slowest to build (two years per factory, compare with 3 to 9 months for wafer, cell and module), and most liable to run afoul of market prices falling below marginal cost of production – if not due to China’s polysilicon exports, then due to future South East Asian capacity which will be less liable to get sanctioned.

Cadmium Telluride dodges all of that, and its relevance is guaranteed thanks to First Solar’s status as the world’s largest solar manufacturer outside of China.  That’s why it’s relevant that the US Department of Energy has awarded a $20 million R&D spend to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) – First Solar’s own annual R&D spend is a little under $100 million annually. NREL’s Cadmium Telluride Accelerator Consortium, which includes Toledo and First Solar, intends to reach 24% cell efficiency by 2025 – though the big shift will be development of tandem cells or modules, such as those First Solar intends to sell by 2024 in partnership with Sunpower.

NREL has recently sought proposals for small pilot projects to accelerate its CdTe development, offering $2 million for a set of between 4 and 10 projects to run from between 6 months and 30 months duration. These would cover high-efficiency devices – CdTe is thin-film, so perhaps something similar to Saule Technologies’ perovskite devices is being considered hero – as well as the supply of tellurium, and lastly performance modelling.

Then there’s the Department of Energy’s (DoE) Interconnection Innovation e-Xchange (i2X) program, which has seen more details released this week, promising to greatly ease interconnection bottlenecks across the nation. This could easily prove more important than even supply chain reshoring.

At the RE+ industry event in Anaheim, California which has now concluded, DoE representative Michele Boyd of the Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) laid out plans to help cut through red tape and approve renewable energy projects – in the Department’s own words “Current interconnection procedures are not designed to accommodate the deployment of hundreds of gigawatts of solar and wind energy resources needed each year to meet clean energy goals.” – and that is why developers need help “navigating complex regulatory structures and technical impact assessments, which vary by jurisdictional authorities of the distribution or transmission grid system.”

This assistance will be rendered with the help of a “Stakeholder Engagement Center,” a Data Collection and Analysis system covering interconnection queues, timelines, costs, and disapprovals. This first phase, running to 2023, will be fed into a 5-year “Interconnection Process Roadmap” concluding in 2028 to rework the regulatory process reducing costs and time frames for developers, while maintaining grid reliability. The Initiative will also offer dedicated expert assistance to developers once the current state of affairs has been analyzed. According to research published in April by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the US has fully 1,400 GW of accumulated potential wind, solar and storage projects awaiting interconnection approval.