Key technology and equipment take-aways from EU PVSEC

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Conversion efficiency in focus

Much talk and a number of announcements on the EU PVSEC trade show floor concerned efficiency records, like the ZSW CIGS world record, supply deals for PERC equipment and methods and approaches to deliver higher efficiency cells and modules. Factors underpinning this trend, reported Smart Solar Consulting’s Goetz Fischbeck, include confidence in global market demand growing and stronger competition on the efficiency front to c-Si producers from thin film rivals.

“What we’ve seen over the past years has been that the industry tried to bring down the cost with current technologies,” said Fischbeck. “That has happened at every step of the value chain, so that the prices for all of the components that flow into solar systems (including raw materials, consumables, inverters, cabling and mounting systems) have been pressured down so massively that there is barely any additional room left to further reduce costs based on the established technologies. And although the majority of the manufacturers were able to improve their margins compared to last year, profit margins in the industry remain so slim on average that further squeezing these margins will not be a viable approach to provide the cost reductions the industry is seeking.”

Fischbeck said that going forward any meaningful LCOE reduction of PV electricity won’t be achievable without corresponding conversion efficiency gains.

From mono PERC, to multi, to n-type and beyond

While the technological progress of the PV industry continues to be hampered by the lack of a common technological roadmap, according to a number of analysts, a pathway for c-Si producers appears to be emerging.

Monocrystalline PERC cells look set to be surpassed by multicrystalline PERC production, given the technological challenges can be met in a cost effective fashion. The announcement during EU PVSEC, that Meyer Burger will supply PERC cell equipment to Hanwha Q CELLS, for its Malaysian (multicrystalline) manufacturing operations seems to suggest that Hanwha Q CELLS is at least pursuing this pathway. Smart Solar Consulting CEO Fischbeck added that interestingly one of the new trends has seen the reemergence U.S. based c-Si cell manufacturing based on next generation production lines.

“In the U.S. we now see, in a relatively short period of time two, three different places [where new] technology bets are being placed: Be it the Silevo investment of SolarCity, or the investment in San Antonio Texas, by Mission Solar, in n-type technology as well as the TetraSun investment by First Solar announced last year,” said Fischbeck.

A mixed bag for equipment suppliers

A relatively large number of European equipment suppliers exhibited in Amsterdam this year including Holland’s Tempress, Germany’s Schmid, Singulus and Von Ardenne, and Mondragon from Spain. Meyer Burger exhibited as a part of International PV Equipment Association (IPVEA) member booth. The bad news that the sector has found hard to shake in recent years was not far away, with the current insolvency proceedings continuing to distract RENA and a further 50 job losses being announced by Centrotherm. Fischbeck said that while things may have improved from the dire straits of 2013, major challenges remain.

“What the equipment suppliers all acknowledge is that 2014 is going to be another very tough year for equipment suppliers, so nobody is getting overly optimistic,” said Fischbeck. “But yes, the fact that new players amongst the manufacturers emerge and new production facilities are being announced, and these are not just pilot lines, but significant investments surfacing raises the hopes that over the next three to four years the market for PV production equipment will improve. Yet there is no reason to assume that there will be a rush in technology investments.” The PV industry consultant added that consolidation is still likely to occur, with the cyclical demand patterns for PV manufacturing equipment likely to claim some casualties.

What was notable in Amsterdam was also that the current performance and prospects of solar equipment suppliers is not homogenous. Suppliers with established relationships with major manufacturers continue to fair well while others find order books worryingly bare. Similarly, equipment makers supplying a number of industries are having a considerably easier time seeing out this current period of weak PV industry tool demand.

A new role for Europe?

At the EU PVSEC opening Marie Donnelly, from the European Commission, noted that PV had played a key role in pushing consumers, “to the center of the energy market.” In light of this she noted the importance of renewable energy in delivering an EU energy policy focused on “competitive, affordable energy and security of supply.”

So what role now for PV manufacturing? Giovanni De Santi, the Director of the Institute for Energy and Transport JRC, at the European Commission said that the institution will begin investigating the feasibility of GW-scale production in Europe.

“The European Commission will start soon a debate with stakeholders about the feasibility of the X-GWp project making the transition to a new generation of technology and thus exploiting the economies of scale made possible by gigawatt-scale production. The project would intended to help reinstate the competitiveness of the European photovoltaics industry.”

On the trade room floor however, much of the talk involved a vision for PV manufacturing in Europe embracing certain specific or low-volume applications. These include glass-glass modules, BIPV or high-efficiency products. These could be thought of as being niche applications however a number of attendees said that the opportunities presented by these markets are substantial and set to grow.

The show remains relevant

There is no mistaking that the EU PVSEC trade show is continuing to shrink. From highs of approximately 1,000 exhibitors and 40,000 attendees in 2011 in Hamburg, the show was much reduced, with exhibitors only filling a fraction of the RAI Exhibiton and Conference Center in Amsterdam.

However, it was also eminently clear that the show remains relevant. With top researchers, analysts, technologists and engineers drawn to the conference, the adjoining trade show attracts a forward looking crowd with a focus on new equipment, processes and technology.

“A small show but the right people in attendance,” was a common reaction to many exhibitors when asked about EU PVSEC’s relevance. In saying that, booths occupying large floor space may be a thing of the past with many exhibitors committing to return in 2015, however with smaller booths. Perhaps the return to happy hunting ground of Hamburg in 2015 will help.