PV Armageddon Print E-mail
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Written by Tom Falcon   
Friday, 30 March 2012 10:41



The rapid market swings concealed major efficiency gains.

Although the adage “what a difference a year makes” would certainly be appropriate for the solar industry when comparing 2011 to 2010, perhaps an even more accurate phrase would be, “What a difference a half a year makes.” The first six months of last year saw record sales and significant revenues across the board – from cell manufacture, equipment and materials all the way to modules and installations. In fact, some equipment vendors reported revenue gains of over 50% in the first half of 2011 versus the same period in 2010.1

Enter the second half of 2011: Excess inventory and manufacturing overcapacity sent module prices sharply downward and introduced challenging revenue ramifications throughout the entire photovoltaics supply chain. The decline has arguably impacted Tier 2 and Tier 3 suppliers most significantly, with consolidation now commonplace and acquisitions by Tier 1 suppliers more numerous. Add the uncertainty with Feed-in-Tariff policies, the Eurozone financial crisis and the much-publicized Solyndra bankruptcy, which has called the US Loan Guarantee program into question, and it doesn’t paint a rosy picture. With news headlines highlighting production halts of over 50% of Chinese solar firms,2 predictions that 2015 will see many of the biggest solar equipment firms vanish3 and large year-over-year revenue slides by some of solar’s biggest players,4 one might begin to think that solar Armageddon is upon us!

While it’s human nature to find this news discouraging, I submit that in the long run this bit of pain will only result in gain. To be sure, times like these force innovative thought and technology advancement, and there has been absolutely no lack of that over the past year, despite the plethora of market challenges. Though gloom and doom headlines abound, there have also been a gracious plenty of news stories that call attention to solar’s advances toward an affordable alternative to traditional energy sources. In addition to cost-reductions through greater manufacturing throughput, substantial gains in cell efficiencies have been achieved over the past year. Here are just a few of the more positive headlines from 2011:

  • “Schmid’s Selective Emitter Technology Supports Sunrise Global Solar’s Record 19.2% Cell Efficiencies,” PVTech, April 21, 2011.
  • “DEK Solar Helps Enable Record 19.4% Cell Efficiency at ISFH,” Semiconductor Packaging News, May 16, 2011.
  • “Intersolar EU: Q-Cells Up ‘Q.ANTUM’ Cell Efficiency to Record-setting 19.5%,” PVTech, June 1, 2011.
  • “Schott Solar Claims 20.2% Efficiency on Monocrystalline Cell,” PVTech, Aug. 25, 2011.
  • “Roth & Rau Achieve 21% Efficiency on 156mm Wafer,” PVTech, Dec. 5, 2011.

You get the idea. Just because the market has slowed doesn’t mean solar technology progress has taken a back seat. As the headlines confirm, there has been a rapid rate of cell efficiency increases, particularly for large area (5" or 6") screen-printed silicon cells, which are by far the most prevalent. These improvements have been made possible by the recent perfection of new technologies and manufacturing techniques, which again speaks to market innovation, even in the face of less-than-ideal economic conditions. For example, 2011 has seen a rise in the prevalence of print-on-print processes for greater efficiency through higher, narrower conductors and screen printing throughput increases, which currently sit at 3,600 wafers per hour, with even faster capabilities on the horizon. There has been a marked increase in the use of rear-side passivation cell architectures, the implementation of selective emitter technology and the proliferation of heterojunction cells – all of which have led to substantive improvements in efficiency percentages. Not only have efficiency gains been made through new technologies, but cost savings have also been the result. Reductions in silver consumption – particularly in a year where silver prices are at an all-time high – have permitted notably lower overall costs and have been enabled by technology progress. For instance, the increasing accuracy of screen printing has reduced conductor widths by more than 50% in the last three years, and techniques like print-on-print and dual print (reference my September 2011 column) have also served to lower silver use by reducing the busbar height, yielding an approximate cost savings of close to 10% per wafer.

So, while there will most likely continue to be solar market uncertainty and inventory corrections as we move through 2012, I am bullish on the future of PV. If we can make advances like the above in just a few short years, imagine what the next decade holds.

References

1. “Centrotherm Photovoltaics First Half Year Sales Up 54% at €428.6 Million,” PVTech, Aug. 25, 2011.
2. J. Chang, “Half of China Solar Firms Halt Production, Says Report,” Digitimes, Dec. 9, 2011.
3. “Most Solar Manufacturers May Vanish By 2015, Trina CEO Says,” Global Warming & Energy Blog, Nov. 17, 2011.
4. “Roth & Rau Reports Heavy Losses in First Nine Months of 2011,” SolarServer, Nov. 7, 2011.

Tom Falcon is a senior process development specialist at DEK Solar (dek.com); This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . His column runs bimonthly.

Last Updated on Friday, 30 March 2012 16:39
 

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