A new chapter for Asia


Southeast Asia is definitely emerging as the next big market for photovoltaics and Singapore looks set to be the hub. That was the message sent out at the PV Asia Pacific Expo that ran parallel to the Singapore International Energy Week. The event saw the gathering of the industry’s movers and shakers, mainly from China and India, as well as respected specialists from global organizations and institutes like Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE, SERIS (Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore), National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin among others. The event took place at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Center, adding a touch of prestige.

Asian PV Industry Association

The establishment of the Asian Photovoltaic Industry Association (APVIA) was an important highlight of the event. Suntech’s founder and CEO Zhenrong Shi was appointed the new the Chief Chairman of the APVIA. The association is seen as necessary to encourage closer cooperation between Asian PV players, akin to EPIA’s role in Europe. “APVIA’s goal is to increase investment into photovoltaics in the region, and to communicate with regional governments to advocate photovoltaics,” Shi stated at the opening ceremony.
JA Solar’s Chief Executive Officer Peng Fang tells pv magazine how important the Southeast Asian market is becoming, for both manufacturers and investors alike. “Asia-Pacific PV is already growing very fast,” he said. “Countries like Malaysia and Thailand in this region are also seeing an increase in PV activity. What the region now needs is to align the policies and start figuring out the right system, feed-in tariffs (FITs) and so on, to push for solar.” Malaysian Photovoltaic Industry Association President, Shamsuddin Khalid highlights the current state of Southeast Asian photovoltaics aptly: “The countries with the most … sunshine are the ones with the least policy movements.” This by no means points to inactivity in the region, but rather the speed of things. “How do we convince the governments in the region that solar PV is the best alternative?” he asks. Malaysia is in no way inactive in PV. The country leads regional development in PV along with Thailand.
The Southeast Asian region is blessed with both sun and natural fossil fuels. EPIA’s Board Director, Murray Cameron, adds how difficult things can be for PV when conventional energy sources like gas are heavily subsidized in the region. Khalid agrees, giving the example that natural gas in Malaysia has received 110-150 million MYR (approximately 25 to 35 million euros) in subsidies. There are strong support groups and lobbyists for conventional fuels and photovoltaics has to fight for its place amongst these giants.
With the APVIA now established, the future roadmap to strengthen solar in the Asian realm has been officially launched.

Singapore as hub

The Singapore Economic Development Board’s (EDB) Goh Chee Kiong realizes that Singapore is not going to be become a multi-megawatt market for the industry, but “Singapore can play a vital role as a hub for PV players to establish their headquarters.” This has been the case for many international PV players like Conergy, Phoenix Solar, Renewable Energy Corporation, SolarWorld, Bosch and recently Heraeus and Trina Solar feeling comfortable with offices on the island. Be it manufacturing facilities, research labs or Asia-Pacific headquarters, many feel that Singapore is the choice location as a springboard into the region.
Tying in to the goal of APVIA, Jifan Gao, Chairman and CEO of Trina Solar, emphasizes the role of Singapore as the hub to communicate and bring together the solar players in the region.
Si Pro’s CEO Erik Bjørstad tells pv magazine, “Singapore is ideal, especially with its high level of intellectual property protection.” The environmental protection laws are also stringent as Bjørstad adds, highlighting the importance of such regulations to ensure that the PV industry remains on a sustainable path. After all, the industry produces a consumer product and the life cycle needs to be sustainable and corporate social responsibility cannot slip either. Si Pro is a turn-key provider of silicon recycling services and has a plant in Singapore as well. Recycling is also becoming a very big issue in an industry that cannot automatically qualify as green solely because the product enables green energy.
“Having a facility in Singapore as well allows for us to cooperate with companies in the region easily and help them recover a high yield,” Bjørstad adds. Recycling in the crystalline value chain is something that is little talked about. However, 2011’s lower profit margins are pushing for more ways to save, and recycling the large amount of silicon that is lost in the value chain – about 70 percent – can, without a doubt, help manufacturers cut costs.
Heraeus’ Pete Horan adds that location played a vital role in the company’s selection of the island for its new silver paste production facility. Tan Choon Shian, Deputy Managing Director, EDB, adds that being located in the heart of Asia provides access to key Asian markets.
The extensive Free Trade Agreements and the pro-business environment have also provided Singapore with the key attributes to become a PV hub for Asia. The speed at which things move in the country is also an attractive factor.
Heraeus Photovoltaic Business Unit’s Vice President and Global Manager, Andy London tells pv magazine that the plant was built in just a few months, having few administrative and bureaucratic hurdles to set up and start running. “We broke ground in February and were finished by May.” And, while the rather somber photovoltaic situation and looming euro crisis may have dampened things a little for the industry, people are remaining positive judging from responses at the event. As Schmid’s Frank Tinnefeld tells pv magazine, “yes, things may be a little slow and the shakeout may be happening, but I believe that the industry will pick up by 2013.” Alternatives are also seen as possibly the next big thing in the years to come. Alternatives in the renewable energy sector comprise technologies like thin film and concentrated photovoltaics (CPV). Shanghai New Energy Industry Association’s Chief Representative of Europe, Nabih Cherradi, calls them the “much ignored section of the PV industry,” and this was aptly highlighted at one of the conferences held during the three-day event. Nabih, who moderated the sessions at the Solar Leaders Summit on ‘Alternatives to crystalline silicon’ and the ‘Commercialization of innovative technologies,’ posed the question of whether these alternatives can provide any benefits over crystalline technologies.
Amidst the entire thin-film buzz under the alternatives umbrella, CPV’s importance is, as is often the case, undermined. Patrick McCullough, CFO of Amonix, sees investment as the biggest barrier to this technology really taking off on a large scale. “If we start looking at CPV efficiencies, we wonder and go ‘wow’, yet the technology is underutilized,” adds Nabih.
Lux Research’s Will Polese also says that finances are the missing link in alternative solar technologies. “Financing is the most immature link in this industry,” he says, pointing to the fact that the demand is there, but the more complicated financing mechanisms in the alternatives sector are retarding growth.

A new facility opens

Tying in with the debut of a pure PV show in Singapore, precious metals and technology group Heraeus opened its regional research and manufacturing facility in Singapore after the Asia Pacific PV Expo on Friday with a traditional Singaporean lion dance. The Heraeus Asia Center located in Tuas, Singapore will specialize in a full suite of end-to-end services driven by the Photovoltaics Business Unit, comprising research and development, sales and technical services, to support the fast-growing Asia Pacific demand for solar cell products. pv magazine was present on-site to witness the official launch of the new facility where a current capacity of 240 metric tons can be produced. However, the facility hopes to produce enough silver paste for 20 GW of PV capacity by 2014. Heraeus will also be conducting intensive research with a dedicated R&D department also housed in the facility (see interview).

Light drizzle to end the week

The debut PV event in Singapore came to a close on a positive note. EDB’s Goh says that he is pleased with this expo in Singapore. He added that the first step has now been taken to place Singapore on the solar map. The country may not develop to be a huge market, but it is definitely turning out to be a prime location for photovoltaic manufacturers to set up their research and development facilities, and Asia Pacific head offices. Singapore, it seems, is now indeed ready to play with the big boys of PV.

Driving costs down and efficiencies up


Interview: Heraeus opened its regional research and manufacturing facility in Singapore, pushing forth the company’s drive to increase efficiencies in PV and drive costs down. The Photovoltaic Business Unit’s Vice President and Global Manager, Andy London, speaks to pv magazine about the plans the company has and what makes them a global leader for PV paste production.


Why did Heraeus pick Singapore as a location for their plant?
We met with a number of different countries when we were looking for a site for our Asian R&D facility. Singapore made the right argument to us. They assured us of their ability to protect our intellectual property, they have a great technology base here and safe working environment. We typically bring in our people from our international facilities for the first years as well, and Singapore is great for their families and for their kids to go to school. Within a few months, we were able to hire highly skilled personnel for our research group, whom we sent to the U.S. for training. When the facility was ready for occupancy, they hit the ground running and are now actually really close to the next new breakthrough product that we expect to bring in the first quarter of 2012. So it has really been a success for us.
At the last EU PVSEC Heraeus introduced the SOL500 series of silver pastes for thin film and c-Si and the SOL205 back-side silver paste for mono and multi c-Si. Now with regard to the massive price drops in the industry, especially modules, how has Heraeus adjusted its own prices?
We focus primarily on the crystalline market but we released in July this year, a product for thin film, the 500 series. Thin film is a much smaller market than crystalline but we are hoping we can do the same in thin film [that] we did in crystalline. We entered the market and efficiencies shot up because our materials gave people much better performance. So, we believe we played a role in the market taking off.
There has been a huge drop in prices for modules this year, a 40 percent drop. Our materials prices, because they are so tied to the price of silver, have unfortunately gone up. It has created … hardship for our customers, as we have become a larger percentage of their material costs. It was about six percent, now it is about ten. Silver went from USD 20 to USD 40 this year. Recently, it dropped to the low 30s which is a big help, but still not enough.
Investors are driving silver prices. PV is only about seven percent of the usage, number three for industrial applications. Investors are buying silver because they are nervous. They can make much bigger returns on commodities than on stocks in banks so they buy silver, thinking it is a safe investment. In 1980, silver went to USD 50 and over three months, it dropped to USD 2.50, so it is extremely volatile. There are three years' worth of industrial silver supply sitting in bank vaults with nobody to buy if people do decide to sell. That is why silver prices dropped a month and a half ago in three days because there was this panic sell-off. It never really recovered. Silver is sitting at this mid-point where no one can tell. It was following gold but now it has de-linked itself a little. We buy silver on the spot market when people order. Our material costs are a function of the price of silver. And we calculate our costs with silver at USD 15. If we calculated at USD 35, our prices would be a lot higher. We absorb the cost. That is our part not to increase prices. Our volumes have gone up and we have offered lower prices to our customers. We are trying but silver is a main driver and we have no forecast for it.
Heraeus is researching various ways to reduce the use of silver, with narrower lines and thinner bus bars. How does this affect costs and efficiency?
We have been looking at ways to reduce the use of silver. In our labs, we have found ways to print narrower lines and thinner bus bars. It reduces silver usage by up to 40 percent. It is a huge amount and customers are very interested in that. In the lab, we can achieve 40 percent; perhaps in the production environment, 20 percent is reasonably easy and 30 percent with additional effort.
There is an additional step involved in this?
Yes, it means adding an extra step. If you print a narrow line, it tends to come out thinner than a wide line. The bus bars are wider than the finger lines. But you need the finger lines to be high to get conductivity. So, when you try to print high finger lines, the narrow lines – the bus bars – come out even thicker. So, the way to reduce cost the best is to de-link those two steps. They print them in one step right now. If you set up two different screens, print the finger lines and then the bus bars, you can print the bus bars much thinner. It is not so easy to do and not everyone is going to be willing to add an extra printer. And if you have an existing line, there is not enough real estate in most companies to add another three meters of equipment.
But [a] 40 percent [saving] is a big eye opener, and from our standpoint, we want the industry and our customers to be profitable. Our research has been focused primarily on improving efficiency the last two years and now reducing silver while maintaining efficiency. Our newest products, the 9400 series, [allow] the printing of ten percent thinner lines without sacrificing efficiency.
The electrode paste market is a tough one to enter and Heraeus has done it. What are the so-called entry barriers?
Technology is the number one barrier. Nobody will buy a paste no matter how cheap it is, if the efficiency is lower. So they need a paste that gives them the right contact resistance, the right surface resistivity and all the other factors. We were fairly new to the PV industry but we have been making pastes since 1968 for the automotive, medical and other industries. It is the same equipment to manufacture the pastes but different substrate material. So we brought a lot of knowledge into PV manufacturing.
Financing is also a big barrier. Silver is an expensive commodity. You have to be able to pay for that silver. Mines expect payment within 24 hours. Those are probably the two biggest barriers. You need to be able to expand fast enough. We went from a few grams to hundreds of tons in a matter of months thanks to our experience. We have a great group of people worldwide and Singapore is our fifth factory now. Heraeus is a 160-year old, family-owned company, where decisions are made very quickly. And this, is also a helpful quality.
What does Heraeus aim to reach with its facility in Singapore?
This is our Asian headquarters. Our primary technology scout, for scouting new technologies, is here. We think that the majority of those technologies will be coming from Asia. Being here puts us on the same time zone as China and Taiwan, that are the two biggest markets for PV. Those two account for 70 percent of the market. It is easier from a hiring and a stability standpoint to be located here. Products that are produced here will be sold worldwide. As far as being competitive, we will continue to work on improving efficiency and to give people a product that is more cost effective. And cost is going to be the biggest driver in the next two to three years.
There are over 200 cell producers in the world and the numbers will drop to a third of that in the next three years. The ones who succeed are the ones who figure out how to offer the best efficiencies at the best costs. We know we can help our customers in achieving this via our expanding research.


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