Polysilicon market on roller-coaster ride

After a short recovery in 2013, the polysilicon industry is again steering towards oversupply, according to a new report by Germany’s Bernreuter Research.

"Although shutting down capacities of approximately 135,000 metric tons (MT) since 2011 has solved the oversupply problem in the short term, new entrants and recommissioned Chinese plants will again tip the supply-demand balance in 2015 at the latest," says Johannes Bernreuter, head of Bernreuter Research and author of the report, The 2014 Who’s Who of Solar Silicon Production.

Correspondingly, the polysilicon price on the spot market will fall from 18 US$/kg at the end of 2013 to 16 $/kg by the end of 2014, Bernreuter forecasts.

Polysilicon is the feedstock for the PV and semiconductor industries. According to Bernreuter Research’s preliminary estimates, the global output in 2013 decreased to approximately 228,000 MT, 4% down from 238,000 MT in 2012. The decline was mainly due to low utilization rates in the first quarter.

In contrast, the newly installed PV capacity increased at a double-digit rate to about 36 GW in 2013. The large polysilicon inventories resulting from oversupply in 2011 and 2012 could thus be reduced decisively.

New low-cost capacities drive down the polysilicon spot price

Bernreuter predicts that this year, strong growth this year in the PV industry, which makes up approximately 90% of the total demand for polysilicon, will initially drive up the spot price. Covering a broad range of PV installation forecasts, the company offers three scenarios, spreading from 43 GW (low case) to 46 GW (base case) and 49 GW (high case). In the high-case scenario, the polysilicon spot price will rise to a bandwidth of 21 to 24 $/kg in the first half of 2014, whereas it will not exceed 20 $/kg in the base case. In all three scenarios, however, the spot price will drop to 16 $/kg by the end of 2014.

The reason, Bernreuter says, is that new low-cost capacities of up to 66,000 MT are coming on stream in 2014, which will push expensive producers out of the market and will consequently reduce the spot price. Roughly one third of the new capacity will be based on fluidized bed reactor technology using monosilane as feed gas. While maintaining high silicon purity, this technology entails manufacturing costs that are substantially lower compared to the established Siemens process.

Therefore, a sustainable price upswing is not in sight, concludes Bernreuter: "At least over the next three years, spot prices of 25 or even 30 $/kg, which some industry players dream of, will remain a Fata Morgana."