Interview: GCL-Si CEO Eric Luo talks tech innovation

2017 was a big year for the global solar industry, for GCL, and for you, having assumed the role of CEO for GCL-Si. What do you expect for 2018?

Eric Luo: Across global markets I still expect to see growing demand, but the shift to new markets in Southeast Asia, Northeast Africa and Latin America is becoming more noteworthy, and has been for the past year. Overall, demand is good. A lot of countries and regions I see are trying to reach the COP 21 target, and that means that even Europe is picking up. We see it as a very active region right now, particularly in the Netherlands, Spain and Hungary. GCL is positioned to take advantage of these new growth opportunities.

GCL’s high-efficiency PERC production line in Vietnam began operating late last year; what is its current capacity, and what products are you producing there?

The capacity is 600 to 700 MW production there in Vietnam. We produce PERC modules there. PERC technology has become standard for us, as it has for the entire industry.

The share of monocrystalline solar modules is rising in the industry; from GCL’s perspective, how does this impact your portfolio?

It is true that mono is gaining a fair share of the market, but with diamond-wire cutting techniques I believe that multicrystalline technology can stay ahead of mono. We still produce about 80% multicrystalline modules, compared to 20% mono, and I see that balance remaining stable for the foreseeable future. We are the world’s largest polysilicon producer, and so it makes sense for us to stick to our strengths.

GCL recently hit a new efficiency of 20.1% in mass production for its PERC solar cells, using black silicon. Are you able to talk a little about this achievement, particularly the impact of black silicon?

We are currently developing the second generation of our ingot, with which we can achieve more than 22.4% efficiency, which we hope to launch soon in China.

GCL’s multicrystalline PERC cells are also showing good LID performance, with less than 1% relative efficiency loss – is this technology now commercialized and available? What steps and procedures did GCL-Si take to achieve this, given the challenges multi-PERC cells have had with LID?

This technology is now commercially available. In terms of downstream we have 6 GW of projects installed, so it is important for our advanced development to serve our customers across the value chain. We have a centralized design institute that allows us to test, evaluate and assess our processes before we commercialize. So we are very confident about our new technology development at all different stages. From ingot, to cell manufacturing, to module manufacturing right down to the performance and reliability stage.

That is the strength for GCL as a fully integrated solar company.

The pace of innovation in module technology appears at times to be accelerating, with many new types of module trends emerging – is there a type that you foresee as becoming dominant?

It is difficult to say. Each technology has its advantages and strengths, as well as weaknesses. GCL is still in the process of how to identify ways to mass produce many different types of module technology. We are also evaluating EPC costs, and what the impact new technology has on these costs.
So glass to glass bifacial modules may currently have an impact on EPC costs, which means for GCL it is important to assess this and obtain an overall view of which technology will be the most suitable for us in terms of quality, pricing, performance, and of course production. It is difficult to say which of IBC, half-cell, glass to glass bifacial technology will emerge as a leader – everybody is exploring opportunities, and so is GCL.

I will say, though, that there will be a main technology prevailing over the next couple of years, we just don’t know what yet.

For heterojunction technology (HJT), we often hear that expensive production upgrade requirements are delaying its adoption. Do you agree with this viewpoint?

I don’t necessarily agree that HJT production is proving too expensive for manufacturers. Too much capex is just based on current availability. But you never know. There is a lot of innovation of this type in solar, at different stages: not just for materials but also equipment. Companies are at different levels and stages. Australia used to be dominated by U.S. and German companies for example, but now the dominance in solar production is all Chinese firms, which supply most of the stringing technology there, and are beginning to supply all over the world.

The recent section 201 issue in the U.S. was, although more restrained than some had feared, still disruptive for the solar industry last year. How is GCL-Si poised to continue serving the U.S. market?

For the U.S. market it’s not just Section 201 but also the tax reform that is impacting the industry. There is not much tax available for equity holders that want to invest in solar projects. We are closely monitoring the development of the U.S. market. It is slow right now, because firms have all accumulated their inventory for the first half of the year, but overall the U.S. development in the utility-scale segment is relatively stable, and has been the most consistent market for solar over the past decade. That won’t change overnight. There is always consistent growth.

The world’s third-largest market, India, has also begun showing signs of uncertainty with its dabbling in tariffs duties and taxes as it wrestles with low module prices. What is GCL’s position on India?

We are assessing local manufacturing opportunities in India right now. Our competitors are all doing the same. India’s market is extremely volatile, though, so we keep an eye on issues that could affect growth. Having said that, GCL should be in a position to maintain our competitiveness in India – few can compete with us there, if we strategize to target our efforts in that area.

We have an IPP focus, manufacturing focus, sales focus – we can do all, and this differentiates us, this vertical integration; it means we know how to develop and deliver value to all customers. We also try to avoid fierce competition for products alone, so we try to integrate our downstream development with module sales in some markets, and also our EPC offerings. This makes us stand apart from our competitors.

Furthermore, storage is our big direction now. GCL New Energy is developing PV+Storage solutions for island regions in particular.

Last year was another record-breaker for China – can that growth be maintained this year?

It is difficult to say. There is lot of debate right now. While there was explosive growth last year, grid curtailment and FIT payment delays are big issues. It is slow in China right now, and we are not sure how the year will pan out and whether it will hit the heights of last year.

The Top Runner impact has been good for module quality in China. It is now a world-leader. It has become much more advanced. I’ve been asked how we achieved this: it’s not just manufacturing that’s improved, but the entire supply chain. And the big factor is the huge demand from the market, which has prompted all stakeholders to invest efforts and money into improving the quality.