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Rachel Ett is a Manager on the Global Corporate Renewables team at First Solar, focused on sourcing, integration, and management for First Solar’s development business and facilitating power purchase agreements with corporate customers. Before joining First Solar, Rachel was a Sustainability Specialist at NRG Energy, where she helped develop creative and cost-effective sustainability solutions for the Fortune 500 power generator and solutions provider.
Rachel holds a Master of Environmental Management from the Yale School of Environment and a Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies from Yale University. She is based in San Francisco, California.
How has COVID-19 impacted your nearer-term and longer-term development work? How has this impacted your manufacturing business?
With the impacts of the COVID-19 virus continuing to change and expand, First Solar is adjusting to what many are calling “the new normal.” Development and manufacturing are multifaceted and complex processes, and we have put our heads together to plot out the best way forward, taking into consideration the many components at play. Our development team has been incredibly creative in handling the situation. Formerly in-person site visits, town halls, and community meetings have migrated online — adaptability has proved key in this regard. Meanwhile, our manufacturing operations aligned on approach to minimize the impacts of COVID-19 to our ability to produce modules. We implemented numerous safety protocols including hiring additional cleaning staff to sanitize high touch surfaces, giving our manufacturing associates time at the beginning of each shift to sanitize their workstations, temperature checks, social distancing, and the mandatory use of facemasks. We have supplemented these activities with frequent communications and training sessions to ensure all associates understand and adhere to our requirements. To date, these efforts have prevented the transmission of COVID-19 within our factories while sustaining our manufacturing capacity, which shows strong metrics across the board. Module production stands at 5.9 GW, including 5.7 GW of Series 6 and 0.2 GW of Series 4 and our fleet-wide capacity utilization remained at over 100 percent for the months of May, June, and July. Our Vietnam manufacturing base had a particularly strong start to the quarter, with capacity utilization of 114 percent and manufacturing yield 100 basis points above the fleet average. We are encouraged by these numbers, especially in light of the current environment.
In truth, much of our ability to thus far mitigate the operational impacts of COVID-19 stems from our proprietary manufacturing technology, which enables us to produce a module within a single factory in a matter of hours. Our fully integrated manufacturing process is a competitive advantage relative to crystalline silicon technology, which is manufactured over the course of several days across multiple sites.
What do you want corporate buyers to know before they pick a project or start negotiations?
Corporate power buyers are seasoned professionals with a depth of knowledge that often parallels what you would see in the utility industry. So, while we wouldn’t be saying anything that they don’t already know, we would encourage them to factor in project “emissionality” when shaping their procurement strategies.
This concept, centered on avoided carbon emissions based on the grid electricity mix displaced by a new renewable energy project, plays a role in helping corporates achieve their decarbonization goals while magnifying the positive impact of their renewable energy generation portfolios. Strategically siting projects in locations with carbon-intensive grids results in greater avoided emissions and enables renewable energy purchasers to make an outsized impact with their investment.
Besides location, another factor to consider is the embodied emissions of the renewable energy technology. How and where a solar panel is manufactured can impact its life cycle carbon footprint, which in turn impacts the overall net emissions of a solar project. The good news is that it will now be easier to select more sustainable solar PV technologies simply by ensuring that projects are powered by components listed in the EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) registry, a global ecolabel for sustainable electronics managed by the Green Electronics Council (GEC). Buyers should look to ensure their modules are EPEAT registered and request an LCA for them at time of RFP and beyond, and use their buying power to send market signals which incentivize responsible, sustainable, and lower carbon solar, at no additional cost.
One market where many corporate buyers have load is PJM, but regulatory uncertainty has posed challenges in this market in the past year. How is your company able to face market uncertainties like this and still get projects to the finish line?
Many developers and corporate buyers have hit “pause” on PJM due to MOPR uncertainty. Here at First Solar, we are continuing to contract in PJM through innovative structuring that insulates economics and provides multiple pathways for the buyer to participate in the PJM capacity market. First Solar is actively engaged in the PJM MOPR development process, and our Regulatory Affairs team has been proactive in filing comments, submitting data to shape how regulations develop, monitoring filings, and keeping our team abreast of real-time changes. I find that the key to success is remaining flexible. This is an educational process for us and our buyers, and we approach this as an opportunity to problem-solve together. Through our efforts we have the ability to structure around this hurdle in a way that is beneficial to buyers.
How would you describe the competitive landscape among prospective renewable energy offtakers in major US wholesale electricity markets today?
First Solar continues to see first-time buyers enter the market, some of which are transacting a significant load in a short amount of time after watching their competitors embrace a renewables strategy (in essence, these new first-time buyers are “playing catch-up”). We also see increased activity ahead of further solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) step-downs in 2022. Finally, solar energy continues to surpass wind energy as the preferred technology of choice among corporate buyers. Bloomberg and Wood Mackenzie project an 80 percent solar, 20 percent wind forecast for 2020 and beyond due to the phase-out schedule of wind’s Production Tax Credit (PTC) as well as the inherent economic advantages of solar’s generation profile.
How are buyers thinking about the embedded carbon of their renewable energy purchasing decisions? What does cleaner solar look like?
Buyers are looking for an economically attractive alternative to fossil-fuel sourced electricity that allows them to decouple their business growth from emissions, water use, and waste generation.
It is important to understand that all PV technologies are not created equal: crystalline-silicon panels, for instance, have a greater carbon intensity as a result of the manufacturing processes required to refine and grow the silicon cells. When manufacturing takes place in countries with high carbon electricity, such as China, this can add up to a fairly carbon-heavy solar panel which in turn has an impact on the carbon intensity of a solar power plant.
Fortunately, there are other cost-effective, high performing solutions: thin film solar modules tend to be popular in countries like France, where the government’s procurement mechanism incentivizes the use of lower carbon solar. Thin film modules, such as those manufactured by First Solar, can have a carbon footprint that is as much as six times lower than a conventional silicon panel.
It is also important to consider the end-of-life management of decommissioned solar panels. While panels are designed to operate for 30 years or longer, it is never too early to start planning for what happens next. Here too, thin film modules have an advantage over silicon panels in the fact that companies like First Solar can recover up to 90 percent of the materials from a recycled module. This includes our CadTel semiconductor, a kilogram of which can be recycled 40 times to generate electricity for 1,230 years.
While it can be challenging to ensure that a project meets the gold standard for sustainability, as mentioned earlier, the Green Electronics Council’s EPEAT ecolabel system can simplify the decision-making process. Through conformance with the PV industry’s first sustainability leadership standard (NSF 457), the EPEAT registry will enable public and private purchasers to identify environmentally preferable PV products.
Photos provided by First Solar