First Solar lights the way

Kelly Dawson
January 24, 2018
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Some of us have never seen Big Ben or stared up at the Eiffel Tower.

Others haven’t stood at the top of the Empire State Building, scurried through Shibuya Crossing, or crossed Sydney Harbor. And there’s still more who haven’t felt the rush of Lagos traffic and the buzz of Ipanema’s famous beach. But even if we haven’t been a face among these global cities, we know them to be filled with as many different experiences as people, and ever welcoming more.

Populations aren’t easy things to imagine. We can visualize the icons of populous places, but it’s impossible to fully take in all of the people who live in them — or those who live in close proximities. Cities have been beckoning individuals for generations, and they are increasingly becoming home to more people who are either moving away from rural areas or witnessing the industrial boom of urbanizing locales.

Even if we can’t fully fathom every person’s unique life, we can see the collective impact of many lives happening at once. According to the United Nations, the world’s population surpassed seven billion people in 2011. It reached six billion in 1998 and is expected to grow to nine billion by the mid-century. And while we know that each person requires food and shelter, we’re also aware that everyone needs another vital thing, too: energy.

Energy consumption has been a hot topic in recent years as the world grapples with a mind-bending population and an infrastructure that lags behind its growth. Our passports may not be stamped with faraway destinations, but the resources we use can impact those living many miles in the distance. That’s where a company like First Solar comes in. As a solar energy business that’s responsible for many of the globe’s grid-connected PV power plants — often from conception to completion — First Solar is working to alleviate our collective dependency on traditional energy sources with the reliable, renewable, and cost-effective solution of solar panels.

This work isn’t always a cinch to understand, but much like the diverse global population it serves, First Solar’s mission is easier to grasp when you consider its overall impact.  

Here comes the sun

“As the world population grows toward 10 billion, consumption of water, food, and energy is expanding at a rate that cannot be maintained without depleting the planet’s resources,” writes David Funkhouser of Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Funkhouser was summarizing People and the Planet, a report from the British Royal Society, which says that much of the world’s impending growth will happen in cities in the coming years. In its conclusion, the society recommends a number of ways the world’s leaders should go about fixing the problem of many people on one planet. And one of the answers, “investment in sustainable resources,” can be found at First Solar. In fact, that’s the primary reason why the company exists.

In simple terms, First Solar’s production of solar panel grids takes one of the Earth’s most valuable resources, the sun, and turns it into energy. The company has the lowest environmental impact in its industry — which otherwise means that its panels have the smallest carbon footprint and produce energy faster than its competitors — and invests the most in research and design. While we won’t go into too much detail about what First Solar’s product does (we’ll leave that to the engineering professionals), we will give a brief overview. Don’t worry, you’re not getting graded on this.

Did you know that Earth receives enough sunlight every hour to meet the whole of our energy needs for a year? That’s a fun fact by First Solar, and a driving force behind its technology. In order to make the most of that otherwise wasted resource, First Solar uses photovoltaic panels to capture that sunlight without relying on mechanics, water, or fuel. The panels are comprised of a thin layer of two elements, Cadmium and Tellurium, that are protected in a glass module and then connected to electric grids. The elements work as semiconductors that absorb sunlight, and then that energy powers our electricity. And unlike silicon, which is an alternative component in solar panels, these two elements use up to 100 times less materials in that energy production.

Here are some more fun facts: the transition from glass panel to thin-film photovoltaic panel takes just over three hours, the panels work in inclement weather, and they can last up to a quarter century.

That level of efficiency — which lowers manufacturing costs and heightens its flexibility around the world — makes First Solar appealing to buyers who want renewable energy as an alternative for or a partner to fossil fuel resources. So far, the company has worked with the developers and operators in charge of power plants, industrial and commercial enterprises, and private utilities in more than 35 countries.

Those partnerships power more than eight million homes per year, which in turn has saved around $460 million in costs associated with greenhouse gas emissions. The company plans to increase those numbers in the coming years, but it’s still quite a lot of progress, considering it has only been around for about 20 years.

Got the world on a string

While it’s not easy to put the entire world’s population into perspective, it may be slightly easier to picture what’s happening in your own backyard. Of the seven billion people who require energy on a daily basis, about 327 million of those users are American. The U.S. wastes about two-thirds of the energy it produces, which ranks us eighth in efficiency among 23 of the world’s top energy-generating countries.

In other words, when it comes to using our energy along Michigan Avenue or Sunset Boulevard, we fall behind the Bund in Shanghai and the Champs Elysees in France.

But consider this: In a 2016 poll by the Conservative Energy Network, 94 percent of participants said that energy efficiency was important. Americans know that energy is as much a national issue as it is a global one, and if we follow the example of Arizona-based First Solar, we may eventually meet the alarming trends with reversible actions.

“Energy is central to nearly every major challenge and opportunity the world faces today,” the UN says in its Sustainable Development Goals. “Sustainable energy is an opportunity – it transforms lives, economies, and the planet.”

In 2016, Fortune named First Solar among the top 10 companies that are changing how the world works. Its solar panels not only provide energy across the globe, but they also project a time when the many lives in need of energy don’t have to wonder about cities running out of it. Cities that are fully powered by solar panels may be hard to picture now, but First Solar’s wide impact across the public and private spheres can make it possible. After all, just like we can imagine cities we haven’t visited, we can fantasize about a future many of us want to see. 

There are more than 250 companies in our combined portfolios, and they are all making amazing advancements. From names you know, like Tesla, to those little gems you haven’t heard of yet, like Xylem, we want you to know all about what your holdings are up to. These ‘deep dives’ will help you understand what you’re invested into and how your dollars are making the world a better place.

First Solar is part of our Renewable Energy portfolio.

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