Elkem Solar to produce silicon blocks in Norway using UMG polysilicon

In 2011 and 2012, REC ASA (now REC Group) first reduced production and then closed down three wafer plants in Norway. In the process it laid off hundreds of workers in small and mid-sized towns.

This was part of REC’s move from Scandinavian production to a new integrated plant in Singapore, a move to Asia which was hardly unique to the company. At the time REC presented their decision as a necessary step to survive, given the competition from lower-cost Asian competitors.

Three years and a new owner later, part of one of these facilities will re-open. REC Group parent company Elkem Solar will re-open silicon ingot and block production at the facility in Porsgrunn, employing an estimated 70-80 workers.

The move may say more about internal dynamics within REC Group’s new owners than it does any return to European manufacturing. The facility will be partially supplied with upgraded metallurgical-grade (UMG) silicon from an Elkem Solar plant in Norway.

“Block production is dependent upon silicon knowledge, and silicon knowledge is something that we have at Elkem solar,” explains Elkem VP of Public Affairs Kristin Karlstad.

She also notes that the part of the plant that will be re-opened is the least labor intensive. “With the Norwegian cost structures, cost levels, this is the part of the plant that we think will be economically feasible to run.”

Karlstad describes the reopening of the plant as "conditional", noting that it will not begin producing silicon blocks until the first half of 2016. "We need to spend the next six months to refine the business case, and checking out how much technology development is required," says Karlstad.

Elkem is also studying the possibility of opening more of the plant. At present Elkem plans to ship the block silicon produced at the plant to REC Group’s integrated wafer, cell and module plant in Singapore, as well as to external customers.

Raising the profile of UMG?

UMG polysilicon has had an uphill battle for acceptance within the solar industry. Johannes Bernreuter, head of Bernreuter Research, says that UMG is still suffering from a bad reputation during previous years when polysilicon supply was limited and low-quality UMG was put on market.

Elkem declined to answer pv magazine’s questions about the specific metric of purity for their UMG polysilicon, stating that whether the material can reach 6N or 9N purity is less meaningful. “The question is the few impurities that are not silicon, what are those and how do they relate,” says Elkem CEO Inge Grubben-Strømnes.

“We achieve purity which gives the same performance in ingot casting and cell production. What we are looking at is the performance of the product.”

Currently Elkem Solar is the only company that is producing large amounts of UMG, and the company’s 6,000 metric tons of annual capacity is still only 2% of the global polysilicon market. However, Silicor is working towards securing funding to build a 16,000 metric ton UMG facility in Iceland.

Johannes Bernreuter says that it is unclear whether this move by Elkem and REC will change the perception of UMG in the market. “It could be a validation,” Bernreuter told pv magazine. “I guess that REC will blend UMG silicon with higher quality polysilicon from the Siemens process, so it is difficult to answer that question.”