Optimism high at PV Taiwan

Despite fewer companies in attendance at this year’s PV Taiwan compared to 2012, the mood throughout the confab was upbeat, with the sense that the troubles of the past two years, while not entirely left behind, are being sorted and good times are on the way.

The expo, held Oct. 29-Nov. 1 at the Taipei World Trade Center, brought together solar products and equipment makers together from more than 70 countries for several days of meetings and conferences.

Last year’s PV Taiwan boasted more than 800 booths, but this year’s expo saw only 400. Notably, two out of Taiwan’s top three players — Gintech and Motech — were not in attendance. But for those who showed up, the rewards have been so far even greater.

Daniel Buchman, general manager of solar PV equipment provider Meyer Burger’s office in Taiwan, said that having fewer booths actually was a benefit. For one, while in the past many companies were in attendance, they sent only low level staff to attend; this year, higher level executives were well in attendance. Also, with fewer booths, "it served to focus the people’s attention," he said. Fewer companies but higher level company reps translated into more meetings and an overall more productive expo.

Even more importantly, the economics of solar have also improved as of late, giving a renewed sense of optimism to an industry long buffeted by capacity oversupply and a weak global economy.

"All companies see light at the end of the tunnel," said Tobias Rapp, general manager of Schmid’s Taiwan operations.

Several factors contribute to this sense of optimism. Many see the benefits of the anti-dumping measures taken in the U.S. and Europe as having a two-fold impact. On the broader market, anti-dumping tariffs in the U.S. and minimum prices in the EU have both contributed to stabilizing prices, albeit at low levels. Stable prices at least give solar makers parameters to work within, allowing them to cut costs accordingly.

Contributing to price stabilization is demand that has maintained and even increased year on year, from 30 GW of installations to an estimated 35 GW in 2013, and some are even hoping for 40 GW in 2014. Plateauing demand in Europe is being offset by increasing demand in the U.S., Japan and emerging markets.

Ellick K.J. Liao, chairman and CEO of Taiwan Solar Energy Corporation (TSEC), which just signed a procurement pact with Chinese wafer giant GCL, estimates that demand in Europe, which once provided more than half of total demand, now accounts for only a third. Rising demand in other markets is cause for optimism, he noted, saying, "We smell the spring is coming."

TSEC has around 500 MW of capacity, but with ample room to grow, said Liao, who until 2011 was CEO of Taiwan’s number three cell maker Gintech. The procurement contract with GCL is for three years and 100 million pieces, a substantial investment.

Liao said they chose to work with GCL based not only on the quality and price of GCL’s wafers, but also on synergies that will allow for even deeper cooperation in the future. "GCL focuses on the upstream and downstream but we focus on the midstream. So we consider this a good marriage." He noted that possible partnerships in solar power stations might be on the table in the future. More than business interests’ ties between the two companies, "We are looking for how we can increase the green proportion in the global power supply."

Stable pricing also means that now solar makers can compete not only on just price but also on quality. The market seems finally to be turning towards higher quality solar products at higher-than-Chinese prices. Sascha Rossman of Taiwanese module and engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) firm Winaico, said, "Quality products are becoming more and more attractive in the market."

Simon Li, vice president of Neo Solar Power’s worldwide sales and marketing, concurred, noting that only a few years ago 220 W panels were sufficient; now, "nobody wants a 240 W panel," claiming the minimum acceptable is 250 W or higher. This means that to successfully compete in the quality arena and consistently improve efficiency, "you’ve got to continuously invest in R&D and upgrade equipment," which translates into capacity investment.

This is just the thing that equipment suppliers are hoping to hear. After years of moribund equipment sales, quality driven demand likely implies that solar makers will need to upgrade their systems. Whether this will involve wholesale line revamps or retrofits remains to be seen. Peter Weier, head of business unit Silicon Processing and Automation for wafer cutting and grinding equipment supplier Arnold Gruppe, said that the combined effects of the EU decision on Chinese solar and a renewed emphasis on quality is already translating into investment and expansion in Taiwan. "Many companies are investing a lot of money in Taiwan," he observed.