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Solar power is one of the fastest growing energy markets in the world, and as the largest solar manufacturing footprint in the western hemisphere, First Solar is the perfect example of a business prioritizing sustainable and ethical business innovation. With a focus on thin film, cadmium telluride photovoltaic modules, First Solar has set an ambitious goal to use their responsible solar manufacturing to lead the world’s sustainable energy future.
First Solar’s two largest sustainable innovations are their unique solar technology and a responsible manufacturing process for their cadmium telluride thin film photovoltaic cells. First Solar’s innovative cadmium telluride solar panels have the lowest carbon footprint, water footprint, and the fastest energy payback time in the industry. Their panels also have a lower cost, superior scalability, and a higher efficiency limit than traditional crystalline silicon cells. The panels have a 2.5 times lower carbon footprint and a 3 times lower water footprint than c-Si panels on a lifecycle basis. Karen Drozdiak, global head of sustainability and ESG for the business, attributes this difference to the company’s innovation, especially the “resource efficient manufacturing process” as well as a focus on the “entire lifecycle, including supply chain, manufacturing, and end-of-life recycling.”
First Solar has created a new integrated, continuous solar manufacturing process, where all operations occur in one building. This reduces the carbon footprint and emissions involved in transportation, and decreases the amount of time needed for operations. First Solar’s thin film solar panels only take around 4.5 hours to be manufactured, as compared to around four days for traditional methods. First Solar has a responsible product life cycle approach, with semiconductor materials sourced from mining waste byproducts. In addition, according to Drozdiak, one of the most critical parts of First Solar’s innovations in sustainable production is the fact that they are “the only solar manufacturer with in-house PV recycling capabilities,” and the solar modules themselves are designed by the business for high-value recycling. More than 90% of all materials can be recovered and reused for new First Solar modules, and the process is capable of recycling 1kg of cadmium telluride semiconductor 41 times, for a lifetime of over 1,200 years.
The combination of First Solar’s two main innovations, namely a unique form of solar technology and a responsible manufacturing and recycling process, have allowed them to be an incredibly successful and sustainable business.
First Solar’s innovation was initially inspired by Toledo native Harold A. McMaster (1916-2003). McMaster was an inventor and businessman known for starting four companies and for holding over 100 patents. One of the companies he started was called Solar Cells Inc., which would later become First Solar Inc. He was the mastermind behind tempered glass and was referred to by Fortune Magazine as “The Glass Genius.” As he was working in Toledo, which is considered the “City of Glass,” he was drawn to solar technology as a way to make energy more affordable and sustainable. Thanks to McMaster’s vision, sustainability has been embedded in First Solar’s core strategy and structure, which has allowed for the innovations in the sustainable manufacturing process that they have come to be known for.
First Solar’s thin film photovoltaic technology has set industry benchmarks for quality, durability, reliability, design, and sustainability. Their innovations in solar technology and a responsible manufacturing process have allowed the business to create their product in an efficient and environmentally friendly way.
First Solar’s products are currently being used to displace 26 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year during their 30+ year lifetime. Their technology uses 96.6% less water on a life cycle basis than traditional combustion energy sources, which saves up to 110,000 liters of water per MWh of energy production. The payback time of their solar panels, which is a measure of how long it takes for an alternative energy method to generate the amount of energy required for its manufacture, is only about four months, as compared to other PV technology, which can take nine months. First Solar also has the lowest environmental footprint in the solar industry and intends to decrease that even further by using 100% renewable energy for operations by 2028. The business is leading the industry in the transition to more sustainable energy production.
First Solar’s intentionality with their commitment to sustainability has led them to make a significant impact on their business, the environment, and people worldwide. First Solar is a pioneer in the renewable energy field, and their innovations have led them to be a multi-award winning company. They have been recognized by the Ohio EPA, Ecolabel, PV Magazine, and more. Their dedication to sustainable business practices make them highly recognizable and supported by consumers and external organizations. According to Karen Drozdiak, within First Solar’s business structure, the “leadership team has fully embraced sustainability,” and have a strong understanding that responsible production and sustainable innovation is a “key way to differentiate” the business.
First Solar’s business recognition and awards are also proof of their commitment to sustainability, which helps give customers confidence in their business. Customers trust that they are purchasing environmentally- leading products from a socially responsible company, and the business has grown because of this, with over 4,600 employees worldwide and 2.9 billion dollars in net sales in 2021. They are now the largest solar manufacturers in the United States.
First Solar’s revolutionary technology and manufacturing process has resulted in numerous measurable short and long term benefits to the environment and society, and the business has consistently demonstrated their dedication to creating a sustainable society and environment. First Solar uses the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, which establishes corporate and product sustainability performance criteria that leaders will exemplify in the market. Their company has implemented sustainability into their everyday practices and into their mission. First Solar also joined the Responsible Business Alliance, which is the world’s largest industry coalition dedicated to supporting the rights and well-being of workers and communities in the global supply chain.
First Solar participates in RBA Validated Assessment Program, which is the leading standard for onsite compliance verification and effective, shareable audits. The RBA Validated Assessment Program implements a code of conduct, risk assessment platform, third party social audits, and corrective action planning into the operations of First Solar.
In May of 2022, First Solar Ohio achieved platinum status from the Responsible Business Alliance by earning the highest possible rating from the RBA Validated Audit process. This audit observed First Solar’s fair labor practices and human rights, health and safety measures, environmental performance, business integrity, ethics, and supporting management. First Solar also creates social impact through their belief in a responsibility to create a safe, inclusive, and diverse workspace. First Solar prides themselves on responsible sourcing, and they have a zero tolerance policy for forced labor.
First Solar is manufacturing an alternative energy solution which helps mitigate climate change and production of toxic waste. First Solar started with the mission of making solar power affordable and efficient, and their innovations in “Responsible Solar” have set the precedent for the industry and beyond.
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Karen Drozdiak, Head of Sustainability and ESG
First Solar is the largest solar manufacturing company in the United States. The business is a global provider of responsibly produced thin film photovoltaic modules.