Tongwei’s cell plans deserve caution despite ambitious downstream pipeline

Yesterday’s groundbreaking at Tongwei’s eventual 5 GW cell production facility points to the strong outlook for the Chinese downstream solar market. However such ambitious production plans should be treated somewhat warily, and the company is unlikely to displace the established manufacturers from cell production rankings, as factory build out and ramp takes many months before completion.

“Tongwei is aiming to expand its business aggressively into international markets, with the ultimate goal to become a global PV generation operator,” IHS Technologies’ analyst Zoco Edurne told pv magazine. “This 5 GW announcement is another step on this same strategy.”

However Edurne notes that there are few details as to the schedule for achieving 5 GW of cell production at the facility and as such, should be “taken with caution.”

“It could take a few years to ramp up a plant of this size. IHS estimates the first phase will be 1GW and put into production by H2 2016.”

Equipment makers both in China and beyond look set to benefit from the factory fitout. IHS’ Edurne notes that while Chinese equipment suppliers are growing and capturing market share, U.S., European and other Asian suppliers still dominate some cell production stages.

Downstream strategy

Tongwei, which is major player in China’s agricultural sector, has ambitious plans for involvement in the country’s booming downstream solar market. Edurne notes that it has announced intentions to develop a downstream project pipeline of some 10 GW over the next three to five years.

“Tongwei already develops projects at agriculture, and other rural rooftop sites and is planning to use these synergies with their main business lines to accommodate a multi-GW solar portfolio on agricultural sites,” said Edurne. Based on this, and its 10 GW project ambitions, it could become “the largest fully integrated player, controlling from silicon production to downstream project development.”

The company currently operates the Yongxiang Polysilicon venture and some 2 GW of former LDK solar cell capacity, according to IHS. If it can execute on its 5 GW cell plans, Tongwei would likely drive some smaller producers supplying the Chinese market out of business, IHS notes.

Low cost goals

Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Jenny Chase believes Tongwei’s goals lie in achieving significantly reduced production costs. While BNEF analysis concludes that Tongwei’s polysilicon activities has not yet resulted in it becoming a “major producer,” that its cell production, “seems to be doing a lot of business by renting cell capacity to better-known players.”

“This appears to be a bid to get to really, really low cost, located at what seems to be a wannabe PV manufacturing and research hub – ingot and wafer maker Sichuan Chaolei and Hanergy are also in Shuangliu,” Chase told pv magazine. “It may also mark an attempt to set up a new solar technology hub with lower labour costs and a better quality of life than Jiangsu, and it seems possible that the local government is particularly friendly to big manufacturing plans.”

Despite this, Chase also urges caution when assessing the Tongwei plans. “5 GW is a lot of capacity to add all at once, and BNEF expects it to roll out in phases, if at all.”

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