Technology-driven capex boom to continue in 2018: PV CellTech to explain key trends

Efficiency gains and productivity improvements are set to dominate the PV manufacturing landscape again in 2018, with strong investments continuing to flow into existing and new cell architectures, with gigawatt-level status now becoming the norm for the manufacturing segment.

The industry is going through one of its most exciting and vibrant phases of technology investment, with PV capital expenditure (capex), covering the ingot to module stages of the value-chain, set to approach USD$8 billion during 2017, almost four times higher than seen five years ago.

Furthermore, the speed of change is now happening at a rapid pace, across both c-Si and thin-film manufacturing, including both p-type and n-type, and mono and multi process flows.

All of the key topics driving this technology advancement are set to be outlined, discussed and debated at the forthcoming PV CellTech 2018 event, in Penang, Malaysia, on 13-14 March 2018; the event is set to feature many of the industry’s most respected manufacturing technologists, hand-picked from the leading companies serving the 100GW solar market of 2017.

This article outlines the output of four months of in-house research by the PV-Tech market research team, that has led to identifying the topics and agenda set to make PV CellTech 2018 the defining event for PV manufacturing technology in 2018.

Innovation at GW scale moving faster than ever

For almost a decade leading up to 2016, PV capex had flowed largely to creating factories that were mainly copies of one another, differentiated mainly by the region of manufacturing and the number of production lines being installed at any given time.

Cell efficiency increases of barely 0.2% per year were the norm, and for years, the most exciting upgrades for mainstream manufacturing involved moving from 2-to-3 and 3-to-4 busbars. Ingot casting was prevalent, slurry-based wafering was everywhere, and few differences were seen in the 245-255W 60-cell panels flooding the market.

This all changed – almost overnight – in 2015, with the key driver being the efficiency gains seen from rear-side passivation from PERC-based architectures. What unfolded then could indeed be classed as the first major technology inflection point seen within the PV industry, and one that now makes some of the blue-sky concepts of before seem entirely possible of entering mainstream manufacturing within the next five years.

The above paragraph perhaps best describes the outcome of the past few months of discussions with global technology experts and the leading technical voices within virtually all major companies driving PV capex during 2018 and beyond.

More than 100 dedicated research interviews were undertaken over the past few months, in order to ensure that the third PV CellTech event, in March 2018, will not simply capture the key issues in detail, but will serve as the basis for the industry collectively to take its first steps to move from the 100GW annual production level to the inevitability of a Terawatt industry during the next decade.

The following section summarises the main themes that will make up the session content for PV CellTech 2018. However, during the research planning for the event, another generic theme emerged that I had not heard before in my various discussions with PV technology stakeholders going back almost 15 years now.

In the past, whenever technology issues and roadmaps came up in discussion with CTOs or heads of R&D, there always seemed to be a fear-factor, or reticence, behind the answers to questions, with companies largely in competition with one another.

Recently however, there appears to be a far more co-operative stance across the industry to ensure that investments over the next few years are aligned with a single technology roadmap, similar to what has been integral to the success of more mature adjacent technology sectors such as semiconductors and displays.

This new thinking is at the heart of the agenda and speaker choice for PV CellTech 2018, and the event could indeed be the first major landmark within the PV industry in setting some collective inflection points for cell architecture choice and benchmarking as the industry moves to a truly subsidy-free environment.

Session topics for PV CellTech 2018

When talking to the industry’s key wafer suppliers, cell manufacturers, equipment/material suppliers and research institutes driving technology-transfer initiatives, there was almost unanimous agreement on the main themes that should prevail at PV CellTech 2018.

  • Supply of diamond wire cut p-multi wafers and how this is keeping p-type multi cell production competitive in the industry today
  • The availability of mono wafers, both n-type and p-type, and when the supply bottleneck will soften for planned capacity expansions or upgrades to mono
  • The transition of Al-BSF p-multi cells to PERC as a mainstream industry transition, and how this will further maintain the market competitiveness of multi as a key industry offering
  • What next after p-mono PERC? This was the question that was most commonly raised, and while not specific to p-type mono, it remains one of the most critical issues for the industry during 2018.
  • Disruption in the market, coming from the record investments today – in particular from China – for heterojunction-based cell concepts. Previously the sole domain of Panasonic (from legacy Sanyo innovations), is China poised to deliver the efficiency and bifaciality benefits of this technology, with an altogether different cost proposition and a new set of equipment suppliers and tooling?
  • What is the most economically-beneficial process flow upgrade route for p-PERT based capacity in the market, and how does this technology move to levels that p-mono PERC cannot aspire to?
  • What benefits can passivated contacts yield for n-type and p-type capacity, and how can this be implemented within existing PERC lines or new capacity expansions?
  • Are we set for a redistribution of GW-level cell capacity installations back to Europe, the US and other emerging end-markets? With trade related obstacles continuing to impact exports from China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia – and a multi-national Terawatt driven market not far away – what needs to be done globally to make cell manufacturing profitable and closer to different end-markets?
  • Following on from above, how viable is cell manufacturing today in India, Europe and the US (albeit potentially enabled via Chinese inward investment)? Can Section 201 and the new round of Indian based domestic manufacturing initiatives finally act as the impetus for GW-levels of new cell capacity outside Asia again?
  • Can pure-play cell manufacturing make money? What is happening with wafer ASPs, cell processing costs, and sales prices for cells? Are premium efficiency cells making positive operation margins or just a loss-mitigation exercise to clawing back minimal profits when selling modules or building solar farms that will only generate positive cash-flow when sold on after two years?

PV CellTech 2018 will be dominated by discussions on the above issues, and every PV manufacturer – from polysilicon production through to thin-film panel offerings – simply needs to learn the answers to these questions in order to have a credible business plan over the next 3-5 years.

The other major theme that emerged was how the industry gets aligned on a single roadmap that sees technology advances consolidated towards 25%-plus efficiency cells being manufactured as a mainstream offering. Making this reality is not going to be driven by a 1GW niche company today, but by a collective effort to accelerate current R&D into mass production.

A dedicated session will be devoted to this single topic at PV CellTech 2018, with leading technologists and technology-transfer institutes that have been pivotal to the industry getting to the 100GW annual production level. Within this context, PV CellTech 2018 will again see the latest ITRPV roadmap being unveiled, and more than ever, the audience will be fixated on hearing how this compares to the presentations and discussions over the two days of the event in general.

n-type emerges as a major focus

By far, n-type is set to feature strongly at PV CellTech 2018, with more speakers and companies talking about new GW plans than the event has seen in the past two years. In fact, about half of the talks at PV CellTech 2018 will be based on n-type activity in the industry.

In previous years, we have had talks from the two original companies that were behind n-type adoption within the industry: SunPower and Panasonic (former Sanyo).

At PV CellTech 2018, we are going to hear from a whole range of new entrants to the n-type stage, and in particular the ones now driving strong investments being made within China that started mostly last year, and are set to continue for some time.

Activity in China to ramp GW-levels of new n-type manufacturing capacity can be seen across companies such as Jolywood, Linyang, Jinergy and many others such as CIE and Clean Air, and also most of the leading p-type manufacturers with new dedicated n-type R&D and pilot production lines.

But to set the stage for n-type developments, PV CellTech will start with a keynote talk from LG Electronics, whose investments and R&D focus has been exemplary in the past few years, and has been a key factor in driving the n-type investments seen elsewhere in the industry today. The performance levels seen by LG’s n-type manufacturing in the past few years have elevated the company to the second most important n-type cell manufacturer in the industry today, after SunPower, and the talk from LG at PV CellTech will undoubtedly be a massive pull for many people in the industry alone.

There will be strong research institute representation on n-type technology transfer and routes to keep n-type performance ahead of the limits imposed on p-type mono, with three of the leading R&D institutes – IMEC, ECN and CEA-INES – on the stage, outlining how technology-transfer can best work and help new technologies be ramped up successfully.

Finally, most of the key equipment suppliers of n-type process tools will be on stage, including for the first time at PV CellTech, Archers Systems from Taiwan.

By the end of the two days of PV CellTech 2018, we hope to have answers to the following questions:

  • Which new n-type manufacturers will emerge in 2018, with GW-levels of cell capacity?
  • What technology routes are being chosen to move cell efficiencies from n-PERT well above levels seen today from p-mono PERC?
  • What is the landscape for new heterojunction mass production, with this technology now seeing its highest levels of capital expenditure ever, and benefiting from a host of leading equipment suppliers now actively driving this technology into the market?
  • How market-ready are new back-contacted schemes being pushed into the market in China, and will the new group of heterojunction advocates move directly to HJT/IBC hybrid architectures as the optimized route for GW-scale manufacturing?
  • How can we evaluate cost and profitability? Where do the n-type wafers come from and what will be the delta over p-type wafers? What processing cost targets need to be achieved in order for modules to be sold with viable margins?

In the past, many industry observers had been somewhat sceptical on new n-type plans, or had sat back and watched several companies shut down pilot operations (former Silevo and TetraSun being just two of many that fall into this category). But this is not the case today, with the current range of n-type plans being pushed ahead in Asia (not to mention the plans from former a-Si turn-key factories of Hevel and Enel/3Sun).

Anyone tracking n-type mass production activity in the PV industry today, or looking at the new entrants from a benchmarking perspective, will find PV CellTech 2018 fascinating, and simply unmissable in terms of intelligence gathering and commercial reality-checking.

p-multi advances more critical to track than p-mono PERC in 2018

PV CellTech featured strong representation in the past two years from the companies that had been first movers on p-mono PERC upgrades and new capacity expansions. Indeed, during PV CellTech 2017 last March, it seemed everyone wanted to talk about new mono PERC capacity!

PV CellTech 2018 will address What-Next-After-PERC as a key theme for the p-mono PERC capacity installed, and whether this all moves to half-cut cell technology, bifaciality or passivated contacting. However, the bigger issue entering 2018 is p-multi.

The massive growth in the PV industry over the past 12 months has prevented p-mono from simply taking market-share by virtue of end-market shipment volumes. Regardless of the new mono puller capacity levels installed in China in the past few years, this technology cannot drive the growth in module shipments that end-market economics are now creating for the solar industry as a whole.

The p-multi segment is currently going through a major upgrade transition that will see the entire wafer supply of p-multi being 100% diamond wire cut by the end of 2018, or even earlier. This makes the use of these wafers a must, not an option, at the cell level, and will certainly drive more advanced etching methods, than simply making do with the additive approach that barely helps increase cell efficiency levels.

At the same time, PERC upgrades on p-multi will be accelerated within China during 2018, and within two years, p-multi cells will have re-positioned themselves from a competitive standpoint, and be able to follow a similar rear side roadmap being pushed by companies currently operating p-mono PERC lines. The ability of p-multi (from the major Chinese wafer suppliers) to keep sufficiently below mono wafer pricing cannot be underestimated.

PV CellTech 2018 will feature keynote talks from GCL-Poly and Canadian Solar, perhaps the two companies in China that have spearheaded the competitive positioning of p-multi in the past 12 months and will continue to be the ones for others to follow during 2018 and 2019.

Networking with the industry’s leading decision-makers

PV CellTech has now become the main industry platform for PV manufacturers to convey technology leadership and ownership of the key advances that will be beneficial to developers and EPCs in the next few years.

While many companies adhere to in-house press releases to disseminate efficiency achievements, using a credible forum to fully outline these results, within a peer based environment, remains the most attractive platform that can be fully utilized not simply for marketing based purposes, but to put placeholders in the ground that could influence a more cohesive roadmap in the future.

New additions to the PV CellTech event format in March 2018 are poised to move this key issue to new levels, and full details will be outlined in January 2018, in what promises to be an unmissable addition to the third event next year. Elevating 3-5 year roadmap initiatives towards a common platform is surely something needed in the industry going forward, as industry leaders move to capacity levels in excess of 20-30GW.

Being left behind is not an option

Capacity expansions with new technologies at the GW-level demand deep pockets from investors, and the manufacturers and equipment suppliers that see themselves part of a 200GW or 300GW annual production environment cannot afford to miss the boat here.

Being out-of-synch with technology directions in the PV industry over the next few years will leave companies stranded with uncompetitive (either based on cost or efficiency) products, or as highly niche producers forced to play in application segments that largely render the company as having no real influence on the industry as a whole.

Upstream, the need to understand g/W metrics, trends in potential wafer thickness reduction, and silicon bulk material quality requirements is imperative. Polysilicon suppliers in particular tend to be the ones that need the most clarity in terms of building new plants, owing to the construction times involved, not to mention the capital investments.

If heterojunction goes big in 2-3 years, g/W metrics could see further downward trends, by as much as 40-50% compared to today, in addition to purity requirements that would force polysilicon producers to effectively move to electronic grade levels. The entire polysilicon segment could simply end up being a constant upgrade/debottlenecking and quality-improvement sector, waiting for plant capacity to balance silicon demand that moves quickly to numbers closer to 3g/W than 5g/W.

Getting involved in PV CellTech 2018

PV CellTech 2018 takes place in Penang, Malaysia on 13-14 March 2018. The first 30 confirmed speakers are shown on the event website that can be accessed here. And for those that missed some of the key moments from the March 2017 event, various downloads are available as a refresher by navigating around the homepage.

Details on how to register to attend PV CellTech 2018 can be accessed via the event homepage also.

On a separate note also, I will be delivering a free webinar on 10-11 January 2018, looking at some of the key issues that will dominate PV manufacturing and technology in 2018 and which form the sessions and topics of PV CellTech 2018. Information to sign up to one of the webinar options can be found through this link.

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