As our alternative energy column comes to a close, the author contemplates the past and the future.
Readers of this magazine might have wondered what this column was doing in an electronics assembly journal. Certainly solar cell metallization and the latest photovoltaic technologies may have been perceived to be outside of the scope of traditional SMT processes. But, when this column was conceived, there was a strong indication that many conventional EMS assembly firms might jump into the solar market. Indeed, there was opportunity and a knowledge base that made this move plausible. Of course, we now know that this hasn’t happened as expected – partly because of the well-publicized solar market slowdown of the last two years, but also because the EMS manufacturing infrastructure in its current state wasn’t necessarily conducive to solar manufacturing.
So, even though many of you have appreciated this column, its relevance for electronics assembly specialists is not what it once was. Therefore, this will be my last solar column in Circuits Assembly – at least for now. Who knows? Perhaps there will still be opportunity for a unification of EMS and solar manufacturing down the road.
Even as I write this last column, there are clear indications that the solar market is headed in a positive direction. In fact, many of our company’s customers are very busy right now, so getting time on the line for new technology trials has been challenging because of full production schedules. Though but one piece of evidence, this is a very encouraging sign. What’s more, even during the photovoltaic manufacturing downturn, our company was very successful in the fuel cell market, participating as a key enabling technology, and this work continues.
Without question, the solar industry has come out of the bottom of the trough. Exactly how the growth curve shapes up in the future and whether the market continues to accelerate at its current pace is uncertain, but there is seemingly a lot of positive news. Take, for example, a recent report that shows solar module prices having increased for the first time in quite awhile because the demand for modules is now so high. Driving this growth are regions like China, Japan, the Middle East and North Africa, and the US.1 The same report that highlights these regions also points to 12% gigawatt growth from 2012 to 2013 – a rate we haven’t seen since the first half of 2010.1
Another market analysis presents market supply and demand probabilities in three parts: downside, most likely and upside.2 The report points out that with the most likely scenario, end-market demand for 2012 was in the 30GW range; 2013 should be slightly improved and, by 2016, module production could conceivably be in the 50GW range. While this news is heartening, the fact remains that overcapacity is still an issue, and even though the market is growing, significant manufacturing expansion is unlikely. Until market demand exceeds the 45GW level – which could happen as early as 2014 – new capacity will not be required.
While manufacturers manage these conditions and anticipate continued increased demand, the current focus is on cost preservation. This, too, is an area where our company has played a significant and meaningful role. Over the past five years, the development and introduction of high-accuracy, high-throughput metallization platforms have helped vastly improve wafer per hour (wph) rates and, therefore, lower costs. Additionally, advances in stencil and screen technology and print process innovation have enabled reduced silver paste material use that has dramatically lowered costs. At a metallization workshop in May of this year, our company, along with the Institute for Solar Energy Research Hameln/Emmerthal (ISFH) and the Department of Solar Energy at the Leibniz University of Hanover, presented findings from our work to deliver record-low silver paste consumption. Utilizing dual-print techniques for fine-line printing, we were able to reduce paste consumption to 67mg per solar cell. Considering that just two or three years ago the average paste use per cell was between 150mg and 200mg, this is a significant cost down development.
The longer-term forecast for solar capacity expansion is quite upbeat. And, there are many opportunities for cost-preservation strategies in the current climate, too. In fact, sometimes market upheaval spawns more innovation than boom times. I remain a firm believer in solar’s future, its benefit to the global community and look forward to continuing the great work we are doing to advance solar technologies.
So while my column won’t appear in this space anymore, I am still diligently working with teams at our company on new cell metallization technology. Any questions
you have with regard to solar are welcome. Feel free to contact me anytime.
It’s been a pleasure.
1. IMS Industry Report, Q1 2013.
2. NPD Solarbuzz, 2013 PV Q1, April 16, 2013.
Tom Falcon is a senior process development specialist at DEK Solar (dek.com); firstname.lastname@example.org.