In search of a niche05 / 2011, Industry & Suppliers | By: Hans-Christoph Neidlein
Fab Managers Forum: With intensified cooperation along the value chain, European cell and module manufacturers aim to lower costs while ensuring quality. To this end, they presented an International Technology Roadmap for Photovoltaics at the 5th Photovoltaic Fab Managers Forum of the SEMI PV Group in Berlin. However, it remains to be seen whether or not this will suffice to counter the dominance of Asian manufacturers.
“It’s five minutes to midnight,” warned Peter Fath, CTO of Centrotherm, at last year’s Fab Managers Forum. In light of increasing global competition and the dominance of Asian manufacturers, the clock has continued to tick and the grace period for European cell and module manufacturers has become even shorter. This became clear at the two-day professional forum of the SEMI PV Group.
Virtually all of the ten cell and module manufacturers with the largest sales are Asian, in particular Chinese, companies. They produce with an annual capacity of at least one gigawatt; a size where most European and German manufacturers are no longer able to compete. Analysts such as Henning Wicht from iSuppli expect to see developments in global capacity of more than 40 gigawatts in terms of module and cell capacities, while the worldwide demand for photovoltaic systems is only half as great, at presumably twenty-one gigawatts.
A view shared by most of the participants at the forum was that such overcapacities will result in further pressure on prices as well as price collapses. There are two sides to the coin: “In order to put real momentum into the market the module price must drop from approximately - 1.60/watt currently to about 1.00/watt – and solar electricity will then move a step further in the direction grid parity,” pointed out Wicht on the one hand. And on the other hand, he explained: “The margins of the module and cell manufacturers are already very small in any case, they hardly have any latitude to lower prices any further at short notice.” The consequence of this is relentless competition, in which additional smaller manufacturers in Germany and Europe that already manufacture more expensively than Asian competitors could come up with the short end of the stick. Whether or not it is also possible to advance quality assurance with this cost pressure remained one of the big unanswered questions at the well-attended mc-Si Forum.
With intensified cooperation, seventeen European cell and module manufacturers and wafer suppliers organized as the SEMI PV Group aim to strike a balance between cost reduction and quality assurance and to counter the competition out of Asia. To this end they presented an International Technology Roadmap for Photovoltaics (ITRPV) in Berlin. Its forerunner was the PV Roadmap for Crystalline Silicon, was presented at last year’s Fab Managers Forum (see pv magazine 04/2010).
More economical use of materials such as silver and polysilicon are regarded as a key instrument in order to save on costs.
While a strongly reduced share of silver for cell metallization was unanimously welcomed at the meeting as being both feasible and worthwhile, there was spirited debate about the suggested use of thinner wafers in the ITRPV Roadmap: processing wafers with a thickness of less than 180 or even 150 micrometers (µm) is more challenging because the rate of breakage normally increases and efficiency declines. This requires new handling and cell concepts.
Moreover, the most important global module manufacturers, particularly in China, are already fully integrated in general. For them the wafer is not the expensive cost factor as in the case of other cell and module manufacturers who have to purchase them.
The global perspective
“The fully integrated top players are hardly interested in reducing the wafer thickness with all of the associated risks and disadvantages if it does not pay off for them at all,” explained Centrotherm management Board Member Fath. Speaking with pv magazine he also criticized the fact that the ITPVR Roadmap, which was largely developed by German cell and module manufacturers, does not take enough account of international developments, particularly in Asia.
“Since our main customers are in Asia, in particular China, a road map that is oriented toward German requirements and perspectives does not help us very much,” stressed Fath who at the same time is a member of the governing board of the German Engineering Federation (VDMA).
For example, according to Fath, the submitted road map does not take into account the fact that leading Chinese suppliers increasingly offer mixed mc-Si and mono-Si ingots that can be used for manufacturing wafers for highly efficient and standard cells.
In addition Fath makes reference to several contradictions in the ITPVR Roadmap between the proposed increase in efficiency and the required cost reduction. For example, with intensified introduction of anti-reflection glass and reduced adsorption of glass, the increased throughput per tool for wafer sawing and wafer cleaning with simultaneous reduction of the wafer thicknesses or the expected yield trend in module manufacturing with the use of thinner wafers.
On the other hand, the ITPVR is too conservative in several points in Fath’s opinion; thus, for example, the state of the art in the case of the tool uptime of thermal processes when it comes to cell production is already above the initial roadmap value of ninety-five percent and the relative number of operators in a cell production line and the floor space per megawatt-peak in the case of module production could be reduced even more than is specified in the roadmap.
Altogether Fath regards the planned cost reduction targets of the roadmap from eight to nine percent annually for module production on a per piece basis and from nine to ten percent annually on a per watt-peak basis as insufficient. “This may be fine for Asian manufacturers, but for European and German manufacturers it is not aggressive enough,” stressed the Centrotherm CTO.
It will be interesting to see how the roadmap continues to develop and what further strategies and measures will be taken by German and European module and cell manufacturers in order to be able to keep pace in the global playoff.