Interview: Sujoy Ghosh

Vice President and Country Managing Director-India at First Solar

First Solar has created approximately 1000 high-skilled jobs at our India facility

February 20, 2024. By News Bureau

First Solar’s new solar module manufacturing facility in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu has ramped to 75 percent of its expected nameplate capacity of 3.3 GW/annum and is India’s first operational vertically integrated semiconductor to module production facility, reveals Sujoy Ghosh, Vice President and Country Managing Director-India, First Solar in an interview with Anurima Mondal, Associate Editor, Energetica India.

Que: The commencement of operations at the new solar module manufacturing facility in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, was a significant achievement. Can you share more insights about the facility?

Ans: First Solar is unique among the world's largest solar manufacturers for being the only US-headquartered company and not manufacturing in China. Our high-tech, USD 700 million facility in Tamil Nadu represents the best of American innovation in advanced semiconductor materials and high-volume, high-value manufacturing without compromising sustainability. Our India facility has a built-up area of 2.5 million square feet and was constructed on 130 acres of land, in only 19 months. Trial production of First Solar’s advanced thin-film PV modules commenced in June 2023 and after securing all the required product certifications, we began commercial shipments in December 2023. The factory has ramped to 75 percent of its expected nameplate capacity of 3.3 GW/annum and is India’s first vertically integrated semiconductor to module production facility that is operational.

Que: How crucial was the government's support in achieving the rapid setup of the manufacturing facility? Additionally, can you elaborate on the talent pool in India that supported this initiative?

Ans: There are few better examples of how comprehensive policy, including trade safeguards, manufacturing incentives, and tangible clean energy goals, can spur investments than India. Today, India is on the verge of becoming the next solar powerhouse, not simply in terms of the capacity being deployed, but as one of the few viable challengers to China’s dominance of solar value chains. This is a direct result of the effective combination of tariff and non-tariff barriers, the Indian government’s Production Linked Incentive scheme for domestic manufacturing, and government clean energy targets. At a time when the International Energy Agency has pointed to the urgent global need for a more diverse solar supply chain, the sheer scale of investment in India makes it uniquely positioned to supply those international markets that are working to address the risks posed by the over-concentration of solar supply chains in China.

The Indian government should continue to commit to this framework in the long run, avoiding any changes that could be seen as causing volatility and potentially undermining investor confidence. This is especially true when it comes to trade safeguards, like ALMM, which are necessary to help ensure that solar manufacturers that have invested in India have a level playing field. At a time when Chinese solar panels are flooding key markets around the world and decimating competition, trade safeguards must be strengthened, not weakened.

From a talent standpoint, First Solar has created approximately 1000 high-skilled jobs at our India facility, of which 40 percent are women. We hired the core workforce 6-8 months prior to our commissioning and invested in training them at sister facilities in the US and Malaysia, which run similar processes and equipment.

Que: What key reforms and strategies do you believe are necessary from policymakers and industry stakeholders to further increase domestic manufacturing of solar components in India?

Ans: First and foremost, there should be continuity and stability in policies that govern the sector, given that manufacturing ecosystems take time to mature. Regulations like ALMM should be strengthened and extended to the upstream value chain with a forward trajectory. This is particularly relevant for wafer-to-cell and ingot-to-wafer capacities as these have long gestation periods, and investors need assurance that the market will not be exposed to predatory pricing from imports. Any efforts to weaken ALMM at this stage could prove damage the potential of India’s solar manufacturing industry.

From a demand perspective, however, there’s a need to re-evaluate the e-auction mechanism and revert to the reverse auction and book-building process of allocating capacities in the solar sector. This was recently implemented in the wind sector and can easily be replicated. As with many markets, demand and the pace of deployment outstrip the pace at which critical infrastructure is deployed. Like the US, we are hearing from customers in India that there’s a need for transmission capacity to keep pace with demand. Beyond this, we would like to see the government further encouraging investments in research and development, positioning India for growth and leadership in future PV technologies that are unlikely to be reliant on crystalline silicon. Partnerships between India’s academic institutions and leading industry players are a catalyst for innovation, bridging the gap between lab and fab.

Que: How can India, the US, and Europe collaborate effectively to address supply chain vulnerabilities and promote a global energy transition?

Ans: The US and India, with their growing solar manufacturing capabilities, have an opportunity to address what too many countries think is a ‘trolley problem’ where they feel compelled to ignore the risks posed by the overreliance on Chinese crystalline silicon supply chains for fear of compromising their solar deployment targets. As the US and India scale clean energy innovation and manufacturing in parallel, there are opportunities to collaborate on enabling the cycles of innovation required to develop tomorrow’s technologies and a formal recognition of this could spur greater engagement between the well-established research organizations and companies in both countries. Our facility in Tamil Nadu, which was financed by the US Development Finance Corporation (DFC), is an example of how market access benefits both countries.

Que: Could you highlight key sustainability practices undertaken by First Solar in the solar manufacturing space, and how these practices contribute to environmental responsibility?

Ans: First Solar embodies circular economy and resource efficiency across all facets of its high-tech manufacturing. To begin with, the First Solar Thin-Film module is designed for circularity and at its end of life we recover 90 percent of the materials. The factory is also home to India's first high-value solar PV recycling plant, which provides closed-loop semiconductor recovery for use in new modules while recovering other materials, including, glass, and laminates. The manufacturing process which is fully integrated under one roof, has a significantly lower carbon and water intensity as compared to equivalent semiconductor-module production. Our energy payback is approximately 5x faster than equivalent crystalline silicon technology.

Que: Can you provide more details on the water and energy efficiency achieved by First Solar's manufacturing process?

Ans: In response to its location in an area of high baseline water stress, we have designed what is believed to be the world's first net-zero water withdrawal solar manufacturing facility. It is designed to minimize its impact on local water resources and will rely entirely on tertiary-treated reverse osmosis water from the city's sewage treatment plant and have zero wastewater discharge. The factory is also home to India's first solar PV recycling plant, which provides closed-loop semiconductor recovery for use in new modules while recovering other materials, including aluminum, glass, and laminates. First Solar has also invested in a captive solar-wind hybrid generation unit within the state of Tamil Nadu, which will be commissioned by September 2024. This will provide up to 75 percent of the facility’s power requirements.

Que: How does First Solar position itself in mastering and scaling thin-film PVs?

Ans: We believe that the next truly disruptive breakthrough in PV technology will balance energy yield, efficiency, and cost and that the pathway to this disruption leads to tandem technologies that combine two semiconductors to maximize the conversion of photons into electrons. With respect to configuring tandems, for the top cell, there are only two practical known material choices today, CdTe or Perovskites, both of which are thin film semiconductors. It’s important to recognize that there’s no other solar manufacturer in the world that has mastered commercializing and scaling thin film photovoltaics to the extent that First Solar has, which we believe puts us in an advantageous position.

Que: What are your immediate and long-term goals for expanding the manufacturing portfolio in India?

Ans: Our immediate priorities are to ramp up the facility to its full nameplate capacity and to localize our supply chain by developing and qualifying local suppliers for the components that are consumed in the facility to produce the module. As a beneficiary of the Government of India’s solar PLI scheme, we have a two-year window to enable this localization and create incremental investment and employment opportunities in India.

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