"Cost targets are back on track. We returned to cost points predicted by the learning curve circa 2010, after high polysilicon prices took it off track. We are expecting polysilicon closer to cost, around US$20 per kilogram," said Markus Fischer, director R&D, Q-Cells, who explained that it is critical for the photovoltaic community to achieve cost targets if solar electricity is to maintain competitiveness with fossil fuels.
Fischer was speaking to an audience of more than 190 suppliers, fab managers and researchers gathered to hear about the latest plans from the International Technology Roadmap for Photovoltaics (ITRPV). Reducing costs per watt peak and efficiency improvements are the twin challenges set forth by the ITRPV Roadmap. Its goal is to stimulate discussion and align interests to solve pressing technological challenges faced by global manufacturers. Originally dominated by European manufacturers, it is slowly becoming more international. "We have our first Asian companies joining us and […we see] interest from companies in the U.S.," said Fischer.
The focus of the discussion this year was on materials and processes, those that are expected to come online into production in 2015. "Crystalline silicon (c-Si) is set to dominate the mainstream," said Fisher. His view was echoed by several other presenters.
Thin film is not gone for good, but it is not the disruptive technology that it was expected to be. "There is no reason to believe that thin film will make serious inroads," said Finlay Colville, Senior Analyst Solarbuzz. With that as background, it was not surprising that c-Si processes were discussed at length, in particular, casting technology and the emergence of ingots that contain large fractions of monocrystalline that can be fabricated or casted in existing installed multi furnaces. The material has been dubbed quasi mono or mono-like.
With quasi mono emerging, there could very well end up being three, rather than two c-si materials, said several experts. "We do see it ramping and expect about 20 percent of shipments in 2015 to be quasi mono," said Jonathan Pickering, President JA Solar America.
Quasi mono came up again in a panel late in the day that covered casting technologies. Several experts came to a shared view that quasi mono material would gain ground within the multicrystalline segment. The experts do not expect it to supersede mono as the dominant material, particularly because of its unsuitability for high efficiency cells. Within the monocrystalline segment, the next trend is likely to be an increase in the usage of n-type material. It is expected to become more widely used due to its ability to achieve "very high" efficiencies, according to Fischer.
Other presentations looked at making silver-free cells, using copper-plating to replace silver pastes. Silver is one of the commodities that has been exhibiting extreme price volatility and it has been trending much higher than in the past. Challenges in handling related to using thinner wafers, and overarching machine uptimes, throughput increases, and optimized fab design were also discussed.
The PV Roadmap group does not recommend detailed technical solutions, rather it is meant to motivate the photovoltaic community to come up with comprehensive answers. Its developers clearly see crystalline silicon maintaining its dominance for the coming years.
Beyond technology improvements, economy of scale is a critical strategy to reduce costs, but a cost reduction nowadays does not necessarily mean that the manufacturer can sell at a price with a decent margin, according to Peter Wawer, Senior Vice President, Technology, Q-Cells. "Doubling the volume produced leads to a 20 percent reduction, but not necessarily profitability," Wawer cautioned. It will mean market consolidation as manufacturers go out of business or get acquired by larger and financially stronger competitors.
"This is the real consolidation 2009 was not it," said Wawer. He suggested that after the consolidation takes place, there will be somewhere between ten and forty manufacturers still active in the market, from a starting point of about 100 manufacturers with a fab capacity of greater 100 megawatts peak. The sentiment about consolidation was not limited to Wawer. Speculation about the reduction in the number of photovoltaic manufacturers dampened the mood and tone of the informal discussions on the sidelines of the conference throughout the day.
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