Category: Blogs

Tongwei moves to #1 in global cell production rankings in Q1’19

During the past few months, Tongwei has officially moved into the top-position as the leading solar cell manufacturer – by production volume – serving the PV industry.

The company will also be the first to produce more than 10 GW of solar cells in a single year, a feat likely to occur during 2019, ahead of strong growth that may see this doubling within just 3 years.

Tongwei Solar is now redefining the whole basis of solar cell production, and is doing this with alarming efficiency across its investment plans, supply arrangements, and cost-reduction plans.
However, having a profitable business model as a pure-play cell manufacturer has eluded every company in the solar industry that has tried to go down this path.

This article reviews the failed attempts by many companies that have tried to make pure-play cell production their PV business model, and then outlines why Tongwei Solar’s approach may turn be the exception to the rule.

The article and discussion comes just days before the fourth PV CellTech conference in Penang, Malaysia on 12-13 March 2019, where the CTO’s and heads of R&D from all the leading solar cell producers today (including of course Tongwei Solar) will be presenting their company’s plans for multi-GW cell activity during 2019 and beyond.

The PV CellTech 2019 event is very close to being sold-out again for a fourth year running, so anyone really wanting to understand global cell production in the next 2-3 years should register quickly at the event website through the link here ASAP.

Litany of failed pure-play cell maker ventures

The first major attempt to drive a business model based on GW-levels of cell capacity was from the former Q-CELLS operations in Germany, fuelled by the Euro-frenzy of the day that was founded on strong research institute driven projects across mainland Europe, and the rise of FiTs in Germany and Italy. Eventually margins were eroded at Q-CELLS, with polysilicon contract obligations driving the company into insolvency. The cell operations were acquired by Hanwha and exist today within the reinvigorated Hanwha Q CELLS module brand offering.

Elsewhere globally, some companies in China started life as cell specialists, most notably JA Solar. This company was quick to see the benefits in being vertically-integrated with module revenue streams a priority. Similar to Q-CELLS above, JA Solar’s cell origins are also prominent in the industry today; Hanwha Q CELLS and JA Solar have been the two major cell producers in the PV industry for the past few years.

While pure-play cell production was going out of vogue in Europe and mainland China, Taiwan stepped in to try and fill this void. In fact, Taiwan-solar was founded on the basis of being mainly a pure-play cell island, and for a few years, companies such as Gintech, Motech and Neo Solar Power were considered to have the highest-performing p-type cells on the market, being suppliers-of-choice for many Chinese and European module assembly fabs. However, trade restrictions (to Europe and the US) revealed the fragility of this business model, putting cell operations in Taiwan into the red and without any strong capital investments to move to any Plan-B.

India tried to kick-start pure-play cell operations, but could never compete at the time with Taiwan cell makers. At the time also, there was no strong local Indian solar market, and consequently no place for any domestic carve-out business model (which is happening now and in a big way).

Lastly, Shinsung in Korea also tried to become a cell-dominant producer. Interestingly, Shinsung was an early advocate of mono, way before it reached the market-share levels seen today. Shinsung had to change directions often, and for a while the route of supplying cells to contract module producers in Southeast Asia did look promising; but again, the model was too dependent on downstream project-based companies that could turn off contract supply channels as fast as they had set them up in the first place.

Tongwei’s model is completely different

Having entered the cell space in a somewhat quiet way (through the acquisition of one of the failed zombie operations in China post the European FiT decline), Tongwei quickly became a cell-supplier of choice to many of the leading multi c-Si module producers in China, not to mention third-party cell supply to the SMSL that already had GW’s of cell capacity in-house.

This was followed by cell expansion phases that eventually saw the company move into unchartered territory.

From 1GW in 2014 to 3GW by the end of 2016, more than 6GW end 2017 and then a blistering 2X in cell capacity installed during 2018 to hit 12GW of cell capacity in China by year-end. And by default, all capacity is new, unlike much of the legacy cell lines running still elsewhere in China and across Southeast Asia.

Today Tongwei has more cell capacity than any other company in the PV industry. But even more significant: future expansion plans for the next 2-3 years are also well above anyone else, by a clear multi-GW margin.

The package is compelling for Tongwei: economy-of-scale benefits at the 20-30GW level; state-of-the-art equipment and operations in China with the lowest manufacturing costs in existence today; the ability to operate a successful business model with margins well below Western companies; and a list of ‘partnering’ polysilicon, wafer and module market-leaders that any cell company would die for.

As more legacy Chinese cell fabs get mothballed in the next few years, it is likely to only drive aspirations even higher with Tongwei. 

Ultimately, this may simply be the first signs of China eventually having its core group of 2-3 production-share leaders across polysilicon, wafer and cell manufacturing, with a cost model that requires any other manufacturer to differentiate in technology and product offering within a niche 10% segment of the industry through the value-chain.

With the current modus operandi of Tongwei being a wholly-Chinese-based manufacturing entity, it goes without saying that only show-stopping duties or barriers – placed on China as an origin of manufacture for solar cells – could derail the plans. However, this will remain unlikely if cell capacities outside China are insufficient to meet the majority of module demand levels.

R&D investments at Tongwei

Tongwei’s cell expansion plans and positioning as the first mega pure-play cell producer serving the PV industry also comes at a time when R&D investments within China are being prioritized much more than in the past. In fact, potentially this becomes a fall more important theme to understand, and could offer insights into what role China may play as the industry moves eventually from p-mono PERC as the mainstream standard of 2019.

Next week, Tongwei’s R&D Manager, Andy Chin, will be speaking at PV CellTech 2019, as one of my keynote invited guest speakers. The opening session at PV CellTech on 12 March in Penang could not be any more pertinent in fact to solar technology trends over the next few years, featuring JA Solar, Hanwha Q CELLS and Tongwei Solar – possibly the three most important technology players in the PV industry today.

PV CellTech 2019 takes place in Penang, Malaysia on 12-13 March. Visit the event website here to grab one of the last few seats on offer to attend.

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DR Laser to premiere at PV CellTech 2019 as event’s first laser tool partner

The forthcoming PV CellTech 2019 event in Penang, Malaysia on 12-13 March 2019 will see the participation of its first laser-based tool partner: (Wuhan) DR Laser Technology.

The inclusion of a laser-based tool supplier supporting PV CellTech should not come as any major surprise, given the rapid uptick in laser-based processing within c-Si cell processing today, but it is interesting indeed that the first company to back the PV CellTech event brand is not one of the established western laser tool suppliers, but one from China: DR Laser.

This article provides a brief overview of laser-based tools’ historical bumpy ride in getting traction within the solar industry, before looking at the strong market-share gains held by DR Laser within this space today, aided significantly by the adoption of PERC as a mainstream process flow in manufacturing.

The formative years of hope for lasers in solar

Having spent my pre-solar life embedded within the laser industry working for one of the major global laser suppliers today (Coherent Inc.), it was a rather fortuitous career sidestep about 15 years ago that brought me into the solar industry, mainly to understand what the market opportunity was for laser sources and tools in the manufacturing of cells and panels.

At this point in time, lasers were in fact seeing their first major growth surge in solar, coming from two avenues: (front-side) edge (junction) isolation at the front-end of c-Si cell production; and for scribing interconnects on thin-film panels (the infamous P1, P2, and P3 patterning stages).

The first of these two (edge isolation) had a rather brief and disappointing flurry of activity, as the European wet-etch tool suppliers successfully shifted junction isolation to a chemical-based rear side process step.

However, the thin-film sector back then was going through its rather ill-fated venture-capital funded fab expansion phase, with more than 100 companies setting up thin-film fabs, and many of them based on a-Si/uc-Si layers deposited on large (display industry motivated) glass panels. Thin-film patterning was a de-facto laser application, and this drove spending on laser-based tooling for thin-film fabs to exceed $1billion over a relatively short time period.

Today, the only meaningful spending on laser-based tools for thin-film fabs is a First-Solar Series 6 roll-out exclusivity-show, with all the business here residing with one laser-tool integrator that has been within the preferred supply-chain club of First Solar now for many years.

This specific opportunity for laser tools with First Solar alone in the thin-film space is far from insignificant. The Series 6 expansions by First Solar represent the addition of 44 new production lines over a four year period, with a capex outlay of about $2.5B in total of which about 40% had been allocated by the end of 2018. Spending on the laser tooling component here is comfortably over $100M, making this great business for the laser tool supplier of choice!

With the demise of thin-film competitiveness for all the a-Si based entrants, and the collapse of virtually everything-CIS/CIGS less Solar Frontier in Japan – and coupled with the aforementioned shift form lasers to chemical etching for front/rear junction isolation – lasers seemed to vanish somewhat from the solar industry as a major toolset, returning to the R&D labs where they had originally been championed before within almost all advanced cell concepts.

(It has to be pointed out that my fortuitous laser-to-solar career move seemed to overlap very nicely with this point where lasers went out of fashion in the solar industry, but this narrative is for another day.)
The period following the March 2012 crash in the solar stocks, mirrored by ASP collapses (the first China-driven cell/module overcapacity effect) then saw a 12-18 month effort to eliminate manufacturing costs. 
Advanced cell concepts fell off the radar, with the exception of one thing: the introduction of rear-side passivation layers using PECVD equipment, now referred simply as PERC.

PERC single-handedly opened up the door for lasers into solar, at the GW-level, and thrust laser contact opening to mainstream process status. What had started as a necessary consequence of moving to thinner wafers (that would not cope with screen-printed contacting), the efficiency benefits purely from reducing losses through having an optimized layer-stack deposited at the rear side, became justification alone for PERC existing on wafer thicknesses stuck at the 180-200 micron range.

Euro-seeded, then China-dominated

While initially conceived in the research labs at UNSW in the 1980’s, PERC lines came into the PV industry on the back of European research projects involving the technology’s first champions: Q-CELLS, REC Solar and SolarWorld. At this time, c-Si production equipment was dominated by European tool suppliers, in particular from Germany.

It is therefore not too surprising that laser-tooling for PERC lines by the above-mentioned cell producers used laser tools produced by German-based companies, in particular Innolas and 3D-Micromac. Indeed, the first company in the China/Taiwan region to move into PERC (Sunrise Global Solar) also adopted European laser tool supplier know-how and expertise.

When PERC took off in China however, it was somewhat of an inevitability that a Chinese laser integrator would emerge as one of the PERC spending beneficiaries, and indeed, this is exactly how things panned out in practice.

The company in question was (Wuhan) DR Laser, and the graphic below illustrates the rapid growth in market-share for laser-based tools for PERC since the company started shipping laser/PERC tools (originally to one of the key SMSL players) back in 2012, with shipments really taking off from 2014 when PERC spread into China. By the end of 2018, laser tools from DR Laser can be seen to dominate laser activity in PERC today.

Other laser-based processing seeing renewed focus, especially selective emitters

While PERC will always be remembered by the laser industry as the first real mainstream application for lasers in the c-Si solar segment, it is not the only application for lasers back on the table for advanced cell manufacturing.

There is currently a mini revival for MWT cell production. MWT is perhaps the ultimate laser process for solar cells: essentially the PV industry equivalent of via drilling. GW-levels of new cell capacity for MWT has been installed in China during the past 12 months, and plans exist to scale this based on market-demand.

The other key laser application to track is laser doping for selective emitter formation. Once seen as a strong candidate for high-efficiency solar cell formation, phosphorous doping by lasers was tried briefly, but deemed much harder and of greater risk than using the improved pastes that were introduced to the industry back in 2008/2009. However, there are strong signs that investments are being made in China to suggest this could provide upside to laser PERC bookings in the near-term.

We will be covering laser doping for selective emitter formation more on PV-Tech after the PV CellTech conference is concluded.

Laser company participation at PV CellTech events remains key to roadmap discussions

Since PV CellTech was established back in 2016, laser producers and tool integrators have been avid participants at the events, but with DR Laser coming on board formally as the first laser tool partner of the 2019 event, it would seem that we have almost succeeded in gaining the support of all tool makers within the c-Si space.

The addition of laser tool suppliers comes after the early involvement of equipment suppliers offering chemical etching, deposition tooling (PECVD, PVD, ALD), furnaces (diffusion, firing), screen-printers, copper-plating equipment, ion implanters and various inspection tool types.

The more solar cells move to higher precision processing, the more lasers find justification within production lines. And when wafer thicknesses decrease to levels that necessitate greater care in handling surfaces, again laser steps have more applicability.

PV CellTech 2019 takes place in Penang, Malaysia on 12-13 March, 2019. In addition to hearing most of the industry’s CTO’s and heads-of-R&D outline technology roadmap projections for the next 2-3 years, the ability to meet and engage with the full range of cell equipment suppliers partnering with PV-Tech at the event provides a huge incentive for those seeking to understand and benefit from the industry’s insatiable drive to constantly increase cell efficiencies and performance.

To access one of the few remaining places at the event, please follow the tabs on the event website here. The full range of companies partnering with PV CellTech 2019 can be found on the homepage of the event site also by scrolling down the page.

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PV CellTech 2019 to showcase leading heterojunction cell manufacturers and growth plans for 2020

PV CellTech 2019 takes place in Penang, Malaysia on 12-13 March 2019, and the agenda of industry speakers is now complete, in what is set to be the most exciting PV CellTech conference since we launched the series back in 2016.

While the event goal is to understand exactly how high-efficiency progress at low-cost will be maintained across multi-GW cell producers in 2019/2020, much attention at the event on 12-13 March will come from n-type capacity expansions, especially heterojunction (HJT).

This article explains why this is happening in the industry today driving n-type capex, lists the companies speaking at PV CellTech on HJT developments, and reveals some of the challenges behind the plans and strategies of the various companies seeking to make n-type the next major technology of the PV industry.

At the time of writing this article, we have about 20-30 delegate spaces left at PV CellTech for attendees, with the event again proving to be in strong demand. As the event is likely to be sold-out by the end of next week, we advise anyone not already attending to register ASAP through the link here.

Why n-type? And why heterojunction?

The potential of n-type silicon substrates is well known, and needs no introduction from a performance standpoint, especially efficiency. Adding in elevated temperature benefits compared to p-type substrates, and the attraction of n-type is a done-deal.

There have been no shortage of theories about why the industry remains 90%-plus p-type today, and for years was 70%-plus from the lowest grade of wafers (p-multi). Regardless what you read on this, the governing factor was wafer availability and the sheer dominance for years from GCL-Poly and the me-too casting proponents based in China and Taiwan. By default, this rendered anything mono (p-type or n-type) as niche.

The first GW cell manufacturers were all multi-based. The first wave of strong cost-reduction in cell lines occurred after the March 2012 market-crash, and this was based on driving down multi casting/slicing and cell production costs.

Replacing the ‘old guard’ of n-type differentiation

Only two companies were originally pushing n-type cells with any meaningful production in place: SunPower and Sanyo. Each company had bespoke non-China based tooling/production and based on the legacy 5-inch mono wafer supply channel limitations. It was virtually impossible for these companies to follow the cost-reduction curve of 50-GW-plus multi cell capacity unity across China, when operating basically as stand-alone in-house IP-controlled n-type cell technology specialists.

The debate continues today with SunPower and Panasonic (the heir of the Sanyo solar empire) on how to be cost-competitive with their bespoke operations, made all the more challenging when you have barely 1% of the global market share. Each company deserves perseverance awards, with tactics and strategies constantly changing as the weight of Asian p-type progress is assessed on a quarterly basis.

Some others tried the n-type approach, with LG Electronics being the one exception where strong R&D spending helped position the company as differentiated at the technology level. The approach by LG was a first in being 6-inch wafer specific, and was based on setting up pilot lines across advanced n-PERT architectures and IBC structures.

LG’s approach was mirrored by a marketing campaign that appeared to target higher-ASP segments and markets that SunPower and Sanyo had shown to pay a strong premium (based on performance and brand) compared to p-type mainstream supply to large-scale ground-mount sites. It remains unlikely that LG’s cell/module operations are positive-earning contributors to LG Electronic’s bottom-line today, with break-even likely the ongoing target when quarterly reviews are undertaken.

PV CellTech 2019 to reveal the current batch of n-type candidates

Of course, it is too early to say that, simply because there has been strong investments into n-type capacities, this will translate into technology market-share gains. However, without the investments, and without a large number of companies addressing mass production, nothing will ever change!

So let’s have a look at what we know for sure today.

Investments during the past 2-3 years in to new n-type facilities have been at record levels, and by some margin! GW-factories have been financed and kitted out with tools across China, with other sites in Southeast Asia, Europe and beyond also shifting to n-type.

The number of companies active with n-type ramp-ups, pilot-line builds and serious in-house R&D has been increasing monthly at a fast rate, over the past 18 months in particular; and many of these are in China with SMSL members.

In the build-up to PV CellTech 2019, we sought out many of the leaders in this grouping as invited speakers for the event. Here are the companies/speakers lined up for PV CellTech that are presenting specifically on n-type manufacturing:

• Igor Shakhray, CEO, Hevel Solar
• Liyou Yang, CEO, Jinneng Clean Energy Technology (Jinergy)
• Qi Wang, Chief Scientist, JinkoSolar
• Zhifeng Liu, COO & R&D Director, Jolywood
• Tommy Xu, COO & Deputy GM, China Intellectual Electric Power Technology (CIE)
• Andy Chin, R&D Manager, TongWei Solar
• Wei Wang, Solar Cell R&D Senior Manager, GCL System Integration
• Yifeng Chen, Vice Director – High Efficiency Cells R&D, Trina Solar
• Anis Jouini, CEO, CEA-INES
• Gunter Erfurt, CTO, Meyer Burger
• Omid Shojaei, CEO, INDEOTec
• Raymond de Munnik, VP Business Development, Semco
• Eric Schneiderlöchner, Director – Crystalline Photovoltaics, Von Ardenne
• Jochen Rentsch, Head of Department – Production Technology: Surfaces & Interfaces, Fraunhofer ISE
• Shubham Duttagupta, Deputy Director & Group Head, Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore (SERIS)

The range of topics from this grouping really does capture everything new and exciting in the industry today with n-type investments, covering the role of equipment suppliers and technology-transfer institutes, and well-funded companies that are looking at each of the three n-type variants today: n-PERT including passivated contacting, HJT and IBC.

While different n-type solutions are being proposed – and we are some way off from any standard process flow or preferred tool supplier rankings – all n-type cell manufacturing is now benefiting from mono wafer supply that is close to being a commoditized offering: something that plagued SunPower and Sanyo in the early days of n-type manufacturing in very different ways.

Wafer supply assured (thanks to LONGi and the new world of silicon rod pulling inside China today), all that is needed is production know-how, reliability and low-cost!

Heterojunction still getting most of the n-type attention

While some of the cell processing involved in manufacturing back-contact cells is somewhat different to all other c-Si cells made today, heterojunction is certainly nowhere near as complicated. The HJT concept is still a wafer with front and rear passivation layers, and front/rear contacting. It is just that the type of layers deposited are different to standard p-type cells, and also much more effective in mitigating against loss mechanisms.

There are many appealing features to HJT as a dominant n-type platform, not to mention a concept that has equipment scalability and thin-wafer adaptability almost as standard: but it is a technology today that needs equipment suppliers’ expertise and know-how, if it is to really succeed in the next few years.

Possibly, also moving n-type HJT to become the main challenger to the market-share held today (and in the next 3-4 years) by p-mono PERC, is a 3-5 year phase and we are actually only in year-1 of this cycle. If so, then we can expect that some of the HJT approaches will be side-lined while a couple may become the de facto route and be the subject of 10s of GW of funding during 2021/2022.

Getting any heads-up on this prognosis at PV CellTech would definitely cover the flight and accommodation costs to Penang once a year!

PV CellTech 2019 will mostly be about benchmarking where n-type production has got to today, understanding if production is still going to be dominated by SunPower, Panasonic and LG over the next 12 months; and finding out which equipment suppliers are going to be key partners in new fab ramp-ups and line optimizations.

In summary though: if your business stands to be affected by the rapid growth of n-type cell-production and module-supply, then you simply have to be at PV CellTech 2019 in Penang on 12-13 March 2019. I look forward to getting your views after you heard all the arguments for and against! Visit the event website here quickly to access one of the final delegate registration options.

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Future industrial PV technologies: Champion cell announcements versus industrial reality

PV is increasingly becoming the cheapest energy source and therefore has become the energy source with the highest yearly capacity additions! Even in 2018, after some scepticism right after SNEC 2018, due to the announcement of the Chinese Government to stop supporting PV as intensively as in 2017, more than 100GW (109GW) has been installed worldwide (we actually bet a crate of beer on that!) and 125GW has been forecast to be installed in 2019.
This is also due to the fact that EU and MENA states are increasing their PV installations again. But this is only the beginning of PV, which is now taking off. In the next three years we will enter the “TW-PV-System era” and in 2050 60 to 70TW of installations are expected. Congratulations to all of us who are involved in R&D, manufacturing or any kind of business along the PV value chain! PV in the long-term will save our planet. 

With our previous blog we wanted to create awareness about LeTID (Light and Elevated Temperature Induced Degradation) in PERC solar cells and modules, as such effects exist but many customers and even some PV specialists were not aware of these severe degradation mechanisms that are possible in new high-efficiency devices. 

We believe that now that many more people are paying attention to this important issue, as in addition many blogs followed ours e.g. from Hanwha Q CELLS, LONGi Group (here and here), Canadian Solar and JinkoSolar, all writing about their LeTID free PERC products.
Indeed, Hanwha Q CELLS started working on LeTID free modules very early, similar to PID degradation, and collaborated with TÜV on tests to qualify PERC modules to be free of any degradation.  

So as already mentioned, PERC technology provides a great and a simple possibility to achieve efficiencies well above 21% in industrial production which would not have been possible with standard (full-area) Al-BSF solar cell technology. With PERC technology having already been developed in many institutes before 2010, the pace of adoption has accelerated and is expected to completely replace the standard Al-BSF technology as the mainstream cell technology. We believe, similar to the projection of PV Tech (Fig. 1), that from 2021 onwards, no standard Al-BSF cell will be in volume production any more.

Current PERC average efficiencies in production are between 21% and 22%, with the higher efficiency ones already using selective emitters again, with champion cells even exceeding 22%. 

Many PV experts are convinced that the “standard PERC” technology would reach its conversion efficiency limits at between the 22-23% marks and then n-type mono-based technologies would quickly enter the PV market, leading to a major shift away from p-type mono, just as we are seeing with the shift away from mc-Si-based technology.

There is currently a huge discussion and PR battle through announcements as to which technologies will become dominant in the post PERC world, while others are debating whether PERC still has higher conversion efficiency potential? Will nPERT at a certain point reach higher efficiencies? Will passivated contacts (often generally referred to as “TOPCon”) enter the PV market? Or will the market go disruptive with heterojunction technology (HJT)? However, as before it remains in the hands of key manufacturers as nobody knows for sure what technology will become dominant, which explains why the “battle” is ongoing. 

Announcements from large cell manufacturers

What is striking our attention over the last 3-4 years, has been the high-efficiency solar cell announcements from large Asian companies, which started with Trina Solar but has been continued by the likes of LONGi Group, JinkoSolar, Kanneka, Hanergy Group and others.  

Before 2010, when solar cells were still produced in volume quantities in Europe, such “showing muscles” was mainly played by European Institutes and also partly by industrial cell manufacturers located in Germany. However when you took a closer look at the announced solar cells structures you very quickly realised that there were always some “tricks” applied to the champion cells: while the champion cells from the institutes where often fabricated on very small substrates (sometimes even a small device implemented on a larger substrate, like a microchip on a wafer), the champion cells from the industry often where not usable in a real PV module, e.g. due to missing edge isolation or they were fabricated using plating or other metallization techniques that even today – more than eight years later – are not used in mass production. 
As highlighted in the table below, we have summarised a list of tricks available on how to modify an industrial-scale solar cell process in order to achieve significantly higher cell efficiencies, but at the expense of actual industrial feasibility.  

In summary, there are many champion cell press announcements around – even from industrial cell manufacturers – that demonstrate capabilities of respective R&D divisions when using their laboratories and advanced pilot lines but rarely give any indication when (and if ever) the related technologies would be implemented with similar efficiencies into industrial production. 

Only the Pmpp at STC of the best actually commercially available PV modules (taking into account the actual wafer size that has been used: 5-inch, 6-inch with M0, M2, M4, et al) allow to deduct the top cell efficiencies that are currently feasible in industrial production. 

What next with or after PERC?

The biggest question currently is what will happen with or after PERC? Does PERC still have potential to reach efficiencies well beyond 22%? Will passivated contacts enter the market in the coming years? 

A recently published article suggested that TOPCon and HJT cell technologies would take over the n-type market in the coming years. Although this is possible it would also contradict our understanding from 25 years of industrial PV cell development. 

The PV industry has always proved to be extremely efficient in further improving incumbent technologies and drive the development in an evolutionary way (remember that PERC is an evolutionary development of Al-BSF). 

Only SunPower and Panasonic were going the “revolutionary way” in the past, putting the focus on highest efficiency processes (based on passivated contacts and HJT, respectively) serving the higher costs markets. Then LG Electronics also entered this segment. 

However, we are seeing that SunPower is increasingly shifting more of its production capacity away from the IBC high-efficiency segment to a more standard (double-sided contact) cell technology, as the modules are processed with standard techniques, which are coming closer to the module power outputs traditionally offered by them. 

Companies such as Jolywood, REC Group and a few others are claiming that they are going into mass production with n-type technologies using passivated contacts. However, to our understanding there are still many issues that need to be resolved, such as production throughput, homogeneity, yield, metal paste contacting and overall module production as they are not yet at the same level of maturity as standard technology. 

It should be noted that a 23% cell conversion efficiency with a Voc of 700 mV can be still reached by the optimization of standard n-type BBr3-diffused nPERT technology (MoSoN- Monofacial Solar Cell on N-type) using low-cost advanced Al-paste metallization (creating selective B-Al emitter), as recently published by ISC Konstanz*.
In that way, also the efficiency of our low-cost IBC “ZEBRA” cell concept would be pushed to 24% efficiencies and beyond without the need of any “hocus pocus” process steps and even before the need to introduce passivated contacts into the process sequence.
We expect that passivated contacts will need to be used on both sides of the cell (or both polarities in IBC concepts) of the solar cell in order to lead to cell efficiencies that are high enough (25% plus), to justify the cost of the additional and more advanced process steps. 

*R. Kopecek et al., Low-cost standard nPERT solar cells towards 23% efficiency and 700mV voltage using Al paste technology, Photovoltaics International, February 2019

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Speakers at PV CellTech 2019 to reveal key technology roadmap trends

The PV CellTech 2019 meeting takes place in Penang, Malaysia on 12-13 March 2019. Going into its fourth year, PV CellTech has firmly become the key event for all CTOs and heads-of-R&D.

The line-up of speakers for March 2019 is by far the most impressive grouping yet to feature at a PV CellTech meeting, including all the c-Si companies making up the new Solar Module Super League (SMSL) for 2019, as explained in an article on PV-Tech just last week.

This article reveals the 30 confirmed speakers for PV CellTech 2019, with just a couple more to be added between now and the event on 12-13 March 2019 in Penang.

As a follow-up also to a recent blog on PV-Tech covering some of the topics for Day 1 of the event, the full list of sessions is revealed also in this blog (Day 1 and Day 2, on 12 and 13 March).

Past CellTech events have been sold-out, so please book soon to attend through the tabs on the event website here.

All silicon-based SMSL companies confirmed as keynote speakers

Last week, we revealed the nine companies now making up the new SMSL for 2019, with eight c-Si module suppliers and one thin-film (First Solar).

We can now reveal that all c-Si SMSL companies will be speaking at PV CellTech 2019, with opening talks on Day 1 from the two cell makers that have led cell production rankings in recent years: JA Solar and Hanwha Q CELLS.

Interestingly, several of the SMSL companies have chosen to present new results from n-type cell lines; a key theme this year at PV CellTech. The full list of speakers is as follows:

• JA Solar, Wei Shan, CTO
• JinkoSolar, Qi Wang, Chief Scientist
• Hanwha Q CELLS Jörg Müller, Head of Department, R&D Wafer & Cells
• Trina Solar, Yifeng Chen, Vice Director – High Efficiency Cells R&D
• LONGi Solar (Cell/Module), Hongbin Fang, Director of Technical Marketing
• Canadian Solar, Guoqiang Xing, Senior VP & CTO
• GCL System Integration, Wei Wang, Solar Cell R&D Senior Manager
• Risen Energy, Huang Qiang, Technical VP


GCL-Poly and LONGi Solar to explain wafer supply in 2019

Key to mono adoption, n-type growth and the ongoing competitiveness between mono and multi modules, is wafer supply to the industry today. Once again at PV CellTech, talks will be given from the two leading wafer suppliers to the industry in the past few years for mono and multi: LONGi Solar and GCL-Poly.

Also featuring at PV CellTech for the first time will be an invited talk from advanced wafering specialist 1366 Technologies. Speakers from these companies are listed below now:

• LONGi Solar (Ingot/Wafer) Xie Tian, Director of Wafer Quality Management
• GCL Poly, Yuepeng Wan, CTO
• 1366 Technologies, Adam Lorenz, CTO


Special session on MWT to explain the current interest in wrap-through

For the first time at PV CellTech, we will have a dedicated session on metal wrap-through (MWT). Having been dormant for some time, there has been a strong uptick in capex from various global cell/module makers in the past couple of years.

The session contributors form the perfect package, to explain what the efficiency/cost benefits are when implementing MWT within advanced n-type and p-type structures. This includes the leading technology-transfer R&D institute for MWT (ECN, part of TNO), the dominant cell producer (Sunport Power), and the equipment company enabling many of the MWT module assembly factories worldwide (Eurotron).

Other multi-GW cell producers confirmed at PV CellTech 2019

In addition to the SMSL players, and other leading GW-plus cell producers, PV CellTech routinely features other cell producers that are having a significant impact on technology trends or non-China production channels.

This year, Boviet Solar will return, in which has become a great opportunity not simply to understand the multi-GW, multi-relationship-based cell/module capacity levels of Boviet, but also the emerging Vietnam landscape for both cell and module capacities, technologies and productivity.

A range of n-type focused cell makers will be featured at PV CellTech 2019, with Jinergy and Jolywood speakers shown below here. Others are expected to be added, helping the audience to understand more about the n-PERT, passivated contacting and HJT expansions underway within China (and elsewhere) today.

• Boviet Solar, Chung-Han Wu, CTO
• Jinneng Clean Energy Technology (Jinergy), Liyou Yang, CEO
• Jolywood, Zhifeng Liu, COO & R&D Director


Leading equipment and materials suppliers

Each year at PV CellTech, leading equipment and materials suppliers have been a key source of information, in particular for current upgrades and new-tool capex being deployed by the industry.
Again this year, almost all the established equipment and materials suppliers will be speaking about how they are pivotal to high-efficiency and low-cost operation of advanced cell production. The group of companies/speakers is shown below now:

• Meyer Burger, Gunter Erfurt, CTO
• Heraeus Photovoltaics, Weiming Zhang, Executive VP & CTO
• SCHMID Group, Christian Buchner, Vice President – Business Unit PV
• DuPont Photovoltaic & Advanced Materials, Guangyao Jin, Chief Scientist
• Von Ardenne, Eric Schneiderlöchner, Director – Crystalline Photovoltaics
• INDEOTec, Omid Shojaei, CEO
• Semco, Raymond de Munnik, VP Business Development
• Aurora Solar Technologies, Gordon Deans, CEO
• VITRONIC, Richard Moreth, Head of PV Sales


Research analysts, R&D institutes, and the 2019 ITRPV roadmap revealed!

The final grouping that will be speaking at PV CellTech 2019 includes other research bodies that have been explaining, forecasting and driving technology change within the PV industry over the past few decades.

As PV CellTech has gained traction in the PV industry since its launch four years ago, it has increasingly fulfilled the role of being the definitive technology roadmap event for the industry, including having the first disclosure of the new ITRPV roadmap each year in March.

This year, we are expanding the technology-roadmap session of PV CellTech, as shown below in this article.

Speakers from UNSW, Fraunhofer-ISE and SERIS will complement the afore-mentioned ECN representations at PV CellTech this year.

• ITRPV Steering Committee, Markus Fischer, Co-Chair
• University of New South Wales (UNSW), Alison Ciesla, Project Leader – Industry Collaborations, ARC Centre of Excellence in Advanced Silicon Photovoltaics & Photonics
• Fraunhofer ISE, Jochen Rentsch, Head of Department – Production Technology: Surfaces & Interfaces
• Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore (SERIS), Shubham Duttagupta, Head of Monocrystalline Silicon Wafer Solar Cell Group
• PV-Tech & Solar Media Ltd.: Finlay Colville, Head of Research & Conference Chair of PV CellTech


Full Day 1 and Day 2 session topics

Previously, I explained fully the sessions and scope of Day 1 at PV CellTech 2019, in an article here. The Day 2 content is shown below, in the fully-outlined event agenda update now.
Day 1 (12 March 2019):

• Morning Session 1: The cell production landscape in 2019: which technologies are really in mass production today?
• Morning Session 2: Keeping both multi and mono p-type cells competitive in the market
• Afternoon Session 1: New metal wrap through (MWT) developments to enhance advanced cell efficiencies in mass production
• Afternoon Session 2: Passivated contacts: what is needed for this process flow to become a mainstream offering in the PV industry?
• Afternoon Session 3: Heterojunction cell expansions: is 2019 to be a breakthrough year for HJT in multi-GW mass-production?

Day 2 (13 March 2019):

• Morning Session 1: The rise of p-mono PERC: enhanced performance from cell-cutting, bifaciality, multi-busbar/grid-interconnects, copper plating, etc.
• Morning Session 2: n-PERT and variants: benchmarking with state-of-the-art p-mono PERC and HJT/IBC mass production leaders
• Morning Session 3: Advanced inspection, yield optimization and cost-controlling measures; maximizing the potential of high-efficiency cell production with the lowest production costs
• Afternoon Session 1: PV technology roadmap I: the views of leading cell producers and materials/equipment suppliers
• Afternoon Session 2: PV technology roadmap II: forecasts from third-party trade bodies and PV-Tech

Day 2 has been structured carefully to follow through the main issue today that almost everyone wants to have answered.

First, what is the limit for p-mono PERC (with any of its add-ons, including half-cut cells, multi-wire grids and bifaciality)? This states the minimum level needed from n-type, but also represents a marker as to when any improvements in p-mono PERC efficiencies will be minimal in percentage terms.

Then, it is key for the industry to understand what can be expected when n-type variants (especially n-type with passivated contacting and HJT variants) are ramped successfully at the multi-GW level.
Part of this production line optimization is based on how much automation, inspection and smart-control of cell lines is undertaken, as a means of consistently producing n-type cell efficiencies at the upper ends of distributions, while at the same time narrowing the range of efficiencies per line/fab.

As outlined previously in this article, the entire afternoon on Day 2 is afforded to the PV Technology Roadmap. This part of the event will now hear the views of various companies and market observers, likely each offering different parts of the roadmap-jigsaw.

While the roadmap has always been critical to companies setting out mid to long-term plans, or simply having the best competitive insight available, the rate of technology progress has made this now essential to companies not being left with yesterday’s technology very quickly.

How to attend PV CellTech 2019

PV CellTech has been sold-out during the past few years, so please register quickly to avoid disappointment! Use the link here to sign up to attend.

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First Solar and Risen Energy included in new SMSL for 2019

When we established the Silicon Module Super League (SMSL) a few years ago, it was prompted by the realisation that a select group of solar PV module suppliers were moving away from the 100+ chasing pack, and firmly establishing themselves as the companies that would be the dominant players as the industry moved towards and above annual shipment levels of 100GW.

In the intervening period, we subsequently added and removed companies, allowing us to ring-fence a select group of companies that were supplying about half of the industry with final module products.

Indeed, the list quickly became far more useful than we had originally intended, with this group of companies supplying more than two-thirds of all modules used in large-scale projects for which the module supplier and the module technology in question is subject to technical and financial due-diligence tests by third-party agencies.

As a result, our list of companies in the SMSL became the de-facto list of top module suppliers that would typically be short-listed by investors/banks that were financing plant capex, or were the ultimate owners of the intended completed assets.

It is now time for us to refresh the SMSL entry conditions, and correspondingly re-evaluate the number of companies that will form the SMSL for 2019.

This article outlines the full list of companies forming the new SMSL for 2019, including a necessary tweaking of the nomenclature underpinning the SMSL abbreviation.

Solar Module Super League

The SMSL was formed in 2015, and included six companies: Canadian Solar, Hanwha Q-CELLS, JA Solar, Jinko Solar, Trina Solar, and Yingli Green. Early in 2016, GCL-SI replaced Yingli Green, as outlined in a feature article on here. Then in July 2016, we elevated LONGi Solar into the SMSL, creating a group of seven companies that have been the SMSL focus until now.

It should be noted that our creation of the SMSL was somewhat a by-product of simply highlighting the breakaway status of leading c-Si based module suppliers several years ago. Silicon Module was then a direct indication that only silicon-based module suppliers were in this upper echelon of industry supply levels.

However, moving forward, we have been forced – thanks to First Solar – to tweak the SMSL definition to become Solar Module Super League. This is of course rather pedantic by nature, but worth spelling out. We will continue to simply refer to the grouping as the SMSL!

Actually, during 2019, we intend to expand the generic SMSL methodology. This is now explained in the following sub-section.

Tearful prognosis of tier grouping misnomers

Amazingly, it is almost ten years ago that I wrote an article for PV-Tech about how the solar industry would be better off with Tier categories, having observed this as somewhat common practice in adjacent technology sectors.

Of course, little did I think that shortly after, a controversy would engulf the industry as to why company ‘X’ was Tier 1 but company ‘Y’ was not? Or why some companies assigned to be Tier 1 had barely 100MW of module-only capacity in-house?

Or why some companies that were clearly among the most ‘bankable’ in the PV industry and had been used in multi-GW of institutional-investor funded projects were also absent from certain lists posted in the public-domain.

Some observers would also question if the Altman-Z scoring methodology had much relevance to the solar industry, and should be part of any analysis on solar module producers/suppliers. 

The Altman-Z scoring was originally configured as a means of extracting common financial metrics and doing a statistical-derived weighted analysis to highlight imminent bankruptcies. Hardly a tool for judging which modules to buy tomorrow!

Of all the questions I have had in the last decade, by far the most frequent and passionately articulated has centred on the company-listing inclusion used by different parties for tier-level categorization of solar companies.

The reason for all this narrative is because an increasing number of people have been using the SMSL as a more real-world assessment of which module companies are the true bankable suppliers of utility scale solar installations globally.

This was definitely not meant to be the role of the SMSL! But I can certainly see how the simplicity and transparency of SMSL categorization is attractive to so many people.

I think the argument here could be based on the straightforward conclusion that if a small group of companies are clearly and consistently supplying most of the major large-scale sites globally, they are by default the most bankable. It is not a bad assumption, and many would argue that reality trumps any competing academic theories any day of the week.

Having set up the SMSL, and seeing this gain traction in many quarters, it begs the question of whether this ‘League’ should have some kind of lower listing.

Anyway, this is work-in-progress, but it is motivated by the fact that there are probably about 20-30 credible module suppliers that compete as bankable for large-scale global utility-based solar today, and the new SMSL, as shown below, is confined to just nine.

The new SMSL

Starting in 2019, we are setting the bar at a minimum of 5GW of company-branded global module shipments expected in 2019. This turns out to be a good marker, as the group of companies in this bracket is well-defined; another prerequisite of the SMSL grouping itself.

The graphic below reveals the new SMSL companies, all of which were featured on our recent Top-10 Module Suppliers in 2018 article on PV-Tech.

Why the SMSL matters when looking global, non-China and utility-focused

It is worth noting first that none of the nine SMSL companies has yet to issue any guidance for module shipment levels during 2019, and even when this comes (at least from the few companies left reporting on NASDAQ/NYSE), we can of course expect a fairly wide range to be given, tinged with a dose of expectation-dumbing or sandbagging.

Rather, our current forecasted shipment levels for the SMSL companies (and indeed our forecasts for the other 10-20 other GW level module suppliers with appreciable business outside China) is based on 2018 shipment levels, traction in end-markets that have positive growth dynamics, and assessing trends in the past couple of years regarding in-house capacity levels and third-party OEM-use.

Lastly, good old-fashioned (human) engagement with all the companies still remains our most valued means of checking historic and future shipment levels and related geographic segmentation.

Now let’s look more at some of the consolidated data from the new SMSL grouping that firmly shows why this grouping is the most important part of the industry this year.

During 2019, the SMSL is forecast to ship 73-74GW of modules, of which 63-64GW will be made in-house with the remainder coming from third-party OEMs (mostly either in China or Vietnam from subservient partners).

Representing almost 60% of global module shipments in 2019, the contribution from the new SMSL can be seen to grow annually over the past years. 

For example, back in 2013, this SMSL grouping supplied just 27% of global modules, reaching the 50% mark in 2016, and seeing single-digit percentage growth annually out to the forecast given here for 2019.

As highlighted earlier in the article, the dominance of the SMSL becomes more pronounced when we remove China shipments and then restrict shipments to large-scale ground-mount projects. With these filters applied, the 60% moves closer to 80%, this is therefore in territory that fully supports the SMSL designation as being among the closest today when looking at module supplier bankability.

Most of the SMSL companies will be presenting company technology roadmaps at the forthcoming PV CellTech 2019 event in Penang, Malaysia on 12-13 March 2019. Details on how to register to attend can be found here.

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Top 10 solar module suppliers in 2018

This article reveals the top 10 module suppliers of 2018, based purely on own-brand shipped module MWp-dc volumes. This ranking complements our recently published top 10 cell producers feature.

For the past few years, we have sought to compile the top 10 module supplier list before the end of January (or at the latest before the Chinese new year). In practice, with the first two weeks of the year being a reset from any prior-year shipment rush or inventory clear-out, we end up having a couple of weeks to get the top 10 module supplier rankings done.

By carefully tracking the main contenders during 2018, this gives us a good idea of what the top 10 will look like, but when we get initial (unreported) confirmation during January, there are always a few surprises.

The counting in the past couple of weeks did not disappoint, and while the industry leader for 2018 was largely known from the start of the year, a few contenders did perform strongly during 2H’18 which is confirmed by the rankings list shown in the article here.

Some others – more reliant on China for shipments – suffered more during 2H’18 owing to the reset that occurred after China-531, and especially those module suppliers lacking access to overseas markets, being cash-constrained and with no Southeast Asia manufacturing to utilize then.

Before we get to the top 10 listing shown, it is essential to understand what ‘module supply’ means, because this still remains broadly misunderstood in the PV industry today. Even when we check companies for numbers, we find we are having to constantly explain to them what module-shipment really means!

Methodology explained

Ranking the module suppliers purely on branded end-user (whether in-house EPC or third-party installer/EPC) shipments has become increasingly harder in the past few years, with an uptick in both module tolling (where production numbers do not translate to shipment figures) and the use of rebranded OEM module outsourcing (which count as module supply).

For example, some multi-GW module producers in China may have ‘produced’ very high levels of modules, but shipment numbers are markedly lower owing to these companies being used heavily on a tolling basis by peers in China that have access to module sales pipelines to downstream outlets. Using underutilized production lines as a tolling service for other companies does not count as a module shipment!

This is also relevant for some module producers today in Southeast Asia, in particular, Vietnam, as it has always been for contract modules manufacturers like Flex (formerly Flextronics), Celestica and Jabil, to name just three.

Similarly, other companies in China that have global brand recognition, or have downstream operations that drive the need for in-house branded modules – and who lack readily available owned cell/module operations outside China – typically have module shipment numbers much higher than in-house module production levels (or indeed any nameplate of effective module capacity levels).

In fact, looking across the top 20 module suppliers for 2018, almost every c-Si player (19 of the top 20) is subject to the above two caveats when ranking module supply figures for the year. By default somewhat, First Solar remains the only (top 10) company that can lay claim to having 100% own-produced module supply.

Another challenge in rankings relates to the numbers being reported (or not) by PV companies these days, particularly in light of the current trend of delisting from non-Chinese stock exchanges where the expectation from western observers for production clarity tends to be far greater than any other reporting channels.

Ultimately, the methodology behind all companies’ shipment levels has become rather bespoke, even for the ones that are still releasing MW or revenue numbers on a quarterly basis on NASDAQ or the NYSE for example. Some companies also like to quote a-sum-of-all shipments (wafers, cells, modules, and tolling services), which misleads certain third-party observers each year.

Thankfully however, the delta between the top-10 and then to the nearest number-11 is modest, meaning that the current (preliminary) ranking shown below is probably the final and correct version that will unfold over the next 3-4 months as reported data of sorts trickles out into mainstream press and social media outlets. We will correct any changes in a few months of course.

The top 8 are pretty much known with high certainty at this point; the final two entries are likely correct, with any other lists probably not differentiating between the various categories outlined above (in particular module-only numbers and tolling services).

For reference, during 2018, the top 10 module suppliers shipped nearly 60% of all modules to the industry.

And finally, here is our estimate of the top 10 module supplier ranking table for 2018:

Commenting on the top 10 companies

While JinkoSolar’s position as leading global module supplier during 2018 was barely in doubt during the year, the most interesting changes were seen across the remaining companies in the rankings table above.

JA Solar established itself as JinkoSolar’s closest rival globally, with the two companies having made strong investments into mono PERC and being firmly committed to Southeast Asia manufacturing hubs to complement Chinese factories.

Trina Solar saw its ranking fall in 2018, as the company went through a year of adjustment coupled with cost savings exercises. However, a strong second-half maintained top 3 status for the company.

LONGi was another winner in 2018, with a strong company focus on seeking non-Chinese module supply growth in most major end-markets. This strategy is expected to continue during 2019.
Hanwha Q-CELLS saw its ranking fall in 2018, with the company adjusting to previous Section 201 implications for US shipments, technology upgrades to lines in China, and a less ambitious growth trajectory that overlapped with its going-private actions during the year.

Canadian Solar set less ambitious module shipment targets during 2018, with its business model still fundamentally driven by downstream project acquisition, build-out and phased sales to global secondary market long-term owners.

Risen Energy made strong gains in 2018, driven largely by highly effective downstream project activity across Asia that puts the company on a par with Canadian Solar in the grouping above.
GCL-SI maintained top 10 status, but the company’s non-China operations is still a work-in-progress, with all capacity still located in China.

Having been just outside the top 10 in 2017, Talesun is a new entrant to the global top 10 listing for 2018. The company had been one of the first multi-GW capacity Chinese-based companies to focus on non-domestic business (similar to Risen Energy) and its inclusion in the top 10 in 2018 should not come as a surprise.

Finally in the top 10 rankings above, First Solar remains the only non-Asian and only non-c-Si based company to feature. The company went through most of 2018 with sales demand outstripping module supply, allowing the company to control the phasing of Series 4 and Series 6 line utilizations and ramp-ups.

Just outside the top 10 there were other multi-GW module producers, some of which produced more modules than companies in the top 10 list, but were often used as tolling sources for other companies, pulling down their final estimated module shipment figures.

What to expect in 2019

When we come to review the top 10 module suppliers in 2019, do not expect too many adjustments; rather some internal reshuffling. In fact, it is likely nine or the top 10 will almost certainly be in the top 10 for 2019, with the top 6 the same.

Like 2018, the top 5 are likely to be all Chinese companies, depending on whether Hanwha Q-CELLS has a successful rebound in 2019 or not, with Jinko’s #1 status again simply not in doubt.
First Solar is expected to move further up the rankings, but this depends on the success of Series 6 during the year.

Of course, aside from being a dream for marketing teams looking to claim leading-supply status or show Y/Y progress, shipment-by-MW-volume is just one part of what really matters in 2019. Module ASPs, cost-structures and profit margins reign supreme of course.

But for those multi-GW players that are satisfied with 10-15% gross margins, then the more product that ships, the better.

Perhaps again, leading multi-GW status in 2019 will owe a considerable part to being one-step ahead of the industry when enacting flexibility in the use of in-house and third-party suppliers, having the correct balance of cell/module capacity inside and outside China, and always offering the optimum performing product to each key global market at ASPs that work also for key customers.

Many of the top 10 module suppliers will be outlining their in-house cell production roadmaps at the forthcoming PV CellTech 2019 event in Penang, Malaysia on 12-13 March 2019.

In the past, companies that stepped up module shipments to lead global rankings often did this at the expense of in-house cell R&D. Therefore, for those looking to see which of the top 10 module suppliers are also cell production leaders in 2019 and beyond, PV CellTech 2019 should offer key findings in this regard.

To register to attend PV CellTech 2019 in Penang, Malaysia on 12-13 March 2019, please follow the links at the event website here.

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PV CellTech 2019 to focus on what-next-after-PERC? Part 1 of 2

PV CellTech 2019 takes place in Penang, Malaysia on 12-13 March 2019, and once again will feature keynote presentations from CTOs and heads-of-R&D from the leading multi-GW cell producers of the industry in 2019.

Now that p-mono PERC cell production is set to be the dominant technology architecture in the PV industry in 2019 (as revealed in a blog on PV-Tech last week), it is the perfect time to address the most important question now for the PV Technology Roadmap: what next after PERC?

Indeed, with PV CellTech offering a glimpse into the future of solar cell mass production (2-3 years out), many of the attendees and speakers at previous events had been flagging this question when it was clear there was a mass migration from Al-BSF cells to rear-passivation layers and local contact openings.

Therefore, PV CellTech 2019 will address the what-next-after-PERC question in depth in March 2019, coming at it from different angles, indicative of the various next-technology approaches seen across the industry today.

To fully address the scope of the topics on offer at PV CellTech 2019, I have split the write-up here into two separate blogs. Part 1 will cover key speakers and topics for Day 1. A follow-up blog later this week will go through the content of Day 2.

In each of the two blogs, I reflect on the relevance of topics and themes chosen for PV CellTech 2019, while highlighting some of the key questions that will hopefully be answered during the two days in Penang.

The full agenda can be viewed via the tabs on the PV CellTech website here, including details also on how to attend the event in March.

Opening session at PV CellTech to showcase JA Solar and Hanwha Q-CELLS

The conference opens with three talks, including invited keynotes from the two most prolific c-Si cell producers of the past five years: JA Solar and Hanwha Q-CELLS. The session will be rounded out by the first of two talks I will give at PV CellTech this year.

Indeed, it is great news that the CTO of JA Solar, Dr. Wei Shan, will again be presenting at PV CellTech. In fact, the timing in March 2019 for JA Solar to be kicking off PV CellTech 2019 could not be more apt, with recent PV-Tech analysis putting JA Solar as the number-one ranked cell producer by volume during 2018.

This is the first time that JA Solar has headed the annual cell production rankings, something that reflects the fact that JA Solar began its life as a cell producer and was unique in China as being high-efficiency cell focused. JA Solar was the first in China to seek to mass produce many advanced cell concepts.

High efficiency cells from JA Solar have included PERCIUM (PERC), RIECIUM (reactive ion etch, subsequently a leading type of black silicon cell), WRACIUM (wrap-through, a legacy advanced cell concept now seeing a mini-revival and to be featured in PV CellTech this year for the first time), and SECIUM (an early selective emitter concept that used for former Innovalight ink, that was subsequently morphed into the doped paste that transformed front-side screen printing of fingers).

Hearing the CTO of JA Solar, Dr. Shan, delivering the opening talk at PV CellTech 2019 is certain to be one of the highlights of PV CellTech 2019!

Anyone that has attended the past three PV CellTech conferences will have heard me say many times that the two companies that have been at the forefront of multi-GW cell production using high-efficiency designs, over the past decade, have been JA Solar and Hanwha Q-CELLS.

Outside of the bespoke n-type production of SunPower and Panasonic (former Sanyo), it was JA Solar and (then) Q-CELLS (from Germany and Malaysia production) that set the benchmarks for p-type cell efficiencies in multi-GW mass production. While JA Solar had a dual mono/multi cell production strategy, Q-CELLS was focused entirely on multi for mass production.

This multi-focus from Q-CELLS, and its headcount of leading cell physicists from European research institutes, was a key driver to Q-CELLS being the first company to scale PERC into mass production, quickly upgrading all its lines in Malaysia. For some time, Q-CELLS (and subsequently Hanwha Q-CELLS) was the main proponent of PERC-based modules to the market. 

The company’s reliance in using only its in-house cells for modules was also a further sign in the company having mastered PERC reliability (in particular understanding degradation mechanisms and the key specifications needed from wafer supply). Other companies with in-house PERC (such as REC Solar across its Singapore cell lines) were known to rely also on cells coming from newly-ramped multi PERC lines in Taiwan, for example.

Over the last five years, collectively JA Solar and Hanwha Q-CELLS have produced approximately 42GW of solar cells in-house, well above any other pair of companies in the solar industry. 

Therefore, simply finding out what is on the roadmap from these two companies alone is worth the ticket-entrance for PV CellTech 2019! As such this forms our first main question to be answered at the event in March!

Evaluating p-type mono and multi competiveness in 2019

The second morning session on Day 1 at PV CellTech 2019 will take a fresh look at what has been the most hotly-debated topic during the past few years at the event: mono-or-multi?

The question is often overplayed in the PV industry, with some companies swearing by multi as still being the most bankable module solution across many GW-scale markets outside China.

Ultimately, each cell technology is still critical to the industry moving north of 120GW this year, and to 200GW in the next few years.

The session will therefore hear from some of the companies that continue to drive multi cell efficiencies forward, in particular Canadian Solar. The company – and its Senior VP and CTO Dr. Guoqiang Xing – has been a regular speaker at PV CellTech in the past few years, and he will again be offering an insight into Canadian Solar’s cell technology roadmap for 2019. Of all the companies in the PV industry today with multi-GW cell and module production levels, Canadian Solar is probably the leading benchmark in assessing how multi keeps competitive with mono. Canadian Solar now has industry-leading multi-PERC cell production levels and has introduced a host of efficiency-additive processes here in the past few years.

Included in this session also is Dr. Chung-Han Wu, the CTO of multi-GW producer Boviet Solar. Dr. Wu’s presentation at PV CellTech 2018 was one of the highlights of the conference and many will be keen to see how many of the technology roadmap options are still being pursued across Boviet’s production lines in Vietnam.

Metal-wrap through (MWT) technology update at PV CellTech 2019

The morning session on Day 1 concludes with a mini-session on metal wrap through cell technologies. Until a few years ago, MWT was widely considered as a technology that was tried-and-tested 10-15 years ago, and unlikely not to see any great resurgence.

Not the case! Indeed, aided in part by the desire to differentiate production lines in China post-Top-Runner variants, MWT capacity has been added in no inconsiderable amounts in China over the past 12-18 months, and a host of module assembly companies are lining up supply deals to offer this technology-type to various rooftop markets across Europe and the US.

In the past however, MWT was mainly seen as a stand-alone bespoke cell architecture. However, its somewhat-modest merits in terms of cell efficiency deltas and subsequent reduction in cell-to-module losses did not get the widespread backing of the PV industry. As such, the technology rather fell back to the research labs.

The new USP for MWT though is as a process flow extra to the current range of PERC, n-PERT and other high-efficiency platforms.
In seeking to find out the true capability of MWT, there is no better institute to offer an overview than ECN which championed MWT cells out of the research labs 10-15 years ago through various European-based collaborations. PV CellTech 2019 will hear from Dr. Arthur Weeber, senior scientist specialist at ECN (part of TNO).

Hopefully, by the end of the MWT mini-session, the industry as a whole will have a clear indication of what can, and can’t be done with MWT, and how via hole drilling with back-contacts can help in giving some cell producers a value-added against the 80GW-plus of mono-PERC capacity currently in the industry.

Explaining the n-type capex excitement

The whole of the Day 1 afternoon is set aside for n-type cell capacity and production trends. With p-mono PERC now the mainstream choice in 2019, the timing again is perfect to evaluate what has been happening with n-type investments (largely across China and pockets of Europe) during 2017-2018.

Nobody doubts the capability of n-type as the ultimate wafer substrate, and the two leading proponents for cell architectures – IBC and HJT – have been well-proven at the GW-scale levels, albeit by one manufacturer only in each case: at least from the context of cell efficiency, if not from a cost perspective in a world of 25-30c/$ module ASPs.

In fact, one should add LG Electronics as the other one-off leader in the n-PERT variant of cell production, where many parallels can be drawn with SunPower and Panasonic as the other n-type champions of the last decade. Each company has invested heavily into R&D, developed in-house tool know-how that retains ownership of IP, and saw the cell side as key to having a differentiated module offering (largely now confined to rooftops globally).

This largely frames what we have seen in the past few years with n-PERT (mostly in China) and HJT (in China, Taiwan and Europe). Here the aim is to emulate cell efficiencies but with a different cost structure that allows competing (at a minimum) with state-of-the-art p-type modules on an LCOE basis, and having a product that can serve large-scale ground-mount installations with bifaciality.

The first part of the afternoon session of Day 1 at PV CellTech 2019 will look at passivated contacts, as a next-generation process flow on the rear side of solar cells. Passivated contacting is not new to mass production and some of the n-type leaders (outlined above) have been successful incorporating this into generations of cell lines.

Different approaches are on the table today, and there is a vibrant institute-driven technology-transfer climate that seeks to enable cell producers to implement the necessary production line upgrades or new line capability.

Passivated contacting certainly does not fall into the options that feature in the what-next-after-PERC debate. Rather, they should be viewed in their own context and what this allows for in the first instance; across companies in China in particular that are driven to mimic the high-efficiency process flow that exists only at LG Electronics today – at least as it relates to the overarching n-PERT devotees.

Heterojunction success in 2019 could still be the big news for the PV industry

In looking at all the n-type options today, HJT remains the one that could have the greatest impact in the industry. Investments are at record levels; leading equipment makers are prioritizing this tool set; and for new entrants, this offers the most compelling argument to investors when looking at being technology-differentiated from p-type in 2-3 years.

While n-type solutions collectively have certain intrinsic benefits over any p-type platform, HJT is perhaps the solution that comes closest to using thin-film deposition tools that exist from various equipment makers, and where much of the know-how is aligned with various steps deployed in the flat panel display industry. HJT is a natural also to use sub-120 micron wafers in the future.

If a-Si thin-film ended up a distraction for many tool makers (not to mention the unfortunate outcomes suffered by all the turn-key end-users), then HJT could still be the reality-check and where the real opportunity still lies. In fact, if HJT comes through big-time in 2019/2020, it will be largely down to the tool makers.

The final session on Day 1 will therefore be all about HJT from some of the leading deposition tool suppliers, not to mention some of the companies that have moved into mass production in the past 12 months.

Signing up for PV CellTech 2019

To register to attend PV CellTech 2019 in Penang, Malaysia on 12-13 March 2019, please follow the links at the event website here.

The second part of this blog series will appear on PV-Tech later this week, looking at the key topics and speakers for Day 2 of the event.

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Mono PERC cell production to lead solar industry in 2019

Back in 2014, p-type mono PERC cell production was less than 1GW. During 2019, production is forecast to exceed 60GW as the dominant technology type deployed by the solar industry for module assembly.

The dramatic growth in production has also been matched by continuous cell efficiency and module power improvements, including a new record (24.06%) in the past few days announced by LONGi Solar.

This article discusses the factors that have led to the dramatic growth in p-type mono PERC production in the past few years, cell efficiency increases, and how p-type mono PERC performance will continue to set the benchmarks for new n-type entrants in China over the next 12-18 months.

The topics covered in this article will also be featured in the forthcoming PV CellTech 2019 conference in Penang, Malaysia on 12-13 March 2019, in which many of the CTO’s and head-of-R&D will be presenting on company technology roadmaps for the coming years.

Growth of p-mono PERC

The use of rear passivation layers had originally been confined to highly advanced cell concepts such as heterojunction and interdigitated back-contact cells, with mainstream p-type cells using the established screen-printed Al-BSF method.

Depositing passivation layers on p-type cells was well established in the research community however, but was not justified before based on equipment cost and the additional complexity in cell lines. Moving away from screen-printing was recognized as key in opening up the rear surface for additional benefits such as bifaciality, not to mention any industry move to wafer thicknesses being reduced to below about 120 microns.

After the solar industry went into a capex downturn in 2012 (prior to which there had been strong Asian investments into p-type multi cell lines), attention focused on efficiency optimization on existing lines and removing cost.

During 2012 to 2014, front pastes improved significantly, with increased bus-bar formation also driving efficiencies higher with minimal capex. Once front surface cell processing had gone through these improvement phases, it was time for the industry to focus on the rear surface, with the first evidence that rear passivation layers would quickly move to mainstream status.

While initial efforts came from European-originated research that flowed into production lines in Malaysia (Hanwha Q-CELLS) and Singapore (REC Solar), the big change happened during 2016-2017 as mono wafer supply moved from niche semiconductor-pulling tools to multi-GW mono pulling factories in China (almost entirely down to LONGi’s aggressive push to commoditize mono wafer supply on a par with multi in China).

The graphic below illustrates how much PERC has been adopted by p-mono cell producers. Indeed, during 2019, more than 50% of cell production in the industry will be from p-mono PERC; a dramatic growth trajectory rarely seen so quickly in the PV industry before.

Efficiency improvements

The growth in cell production has also been matched by a collective drive from the industry to push R&D and mass-production cell efficiencies well above the 20% level, and into territories previously considered by market observers to be the sole domain of n-type variants.

Average cell efficiencies in mass production for p-mono PERC cells have moved from initial levels of about 19% to over 21% at the end of 2018, with record levels from commercial pilot-line or R&D lines on full-size cells at levels well above this.

Indeed, most recently, LONGi Solar reported another world record for full-cell size p-mono PERC cells at above 24%, covered on PV-Tech earlier this week.

Setting the benchmark for n-type cell additions

The continued capacity expansions and efficiency increases seen from p-mono PERC based cell producers is coming also at a time when investments in n-type alternative (in particular n-PERT and HJT) are being seen in the industry.

While in the past, any new n-type entrant would benchmark performance against the two existing cell makers of n-type advanced cells (SunPower and Panasonic), today it is p-type mono PERC (and bifacial variants) that is setting the levels that these new n-type entrants need to match at a bare minimum, to justify their existence.

This is creating a fascinating dynamic, and one that is set to be explored fully at the forthcoming PV CellTech 2019 event in Penang, Malaysia on 12-13 March 2019. Leading p-mono PERC producers, including the new holder of the world-record cited above, LONGi Solar, will be presenting latest production results and future roadmaps at the event. To learn more about PV CellTech 2019, or to register to attend, please follow the link here.

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Top-10 solar cell producers of 2018

Solar cell production in 2018 represented change on many fronts, but may be remembered as a year during which Chinese-owned companies made further strategic moves as part of the current Beijing mandate to position the country as a high-tech manufacturing global powerhouse.

This article explains how this is having a dramatic impact on solar cell manufacturing outside the control of leading Chinese-funded companies, and what this really means in terms of solar cell technologies and industry-wide technology roadmaps during 2019.

The content and scope of the article also sets out the topics that will form the 2-day agenda of the forthcoming PV CellTech 2019 conference in Penang, Malaysia during 12-13 March 2019.

Understanding why cell production has changed

When the first wave of capacity expansions occurred in China about ten years ago, it was followed by various forms of vertical integration during which many companies established GW-scale cell and module manufacturing facilities. While this occurred, there was still a place for pure-play cell production in other countries such as Taiwan.

As a result of this, cell production globally saw top-10 lists comprised of different Chinese and Taiwanese companies, alongside more established producers such as SunPower, REC Solar and Q-CELLS (subsequently South Korean controlled Hanwha Q-CELLS). For a while also, representation was provided by Japan through companies such as Kyocera and Sharp Solar.

At about the same time as Taiwan cell production grew, there was a dramatic decline in cell production in Japan where costs were simply too high to compete with Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturing benchmarks.

Over time, Chinese companies took more of a lead, based purely on capex to scale from 1GW to the 3-5GW level. Outside China, the only company to match these capacity expansions was Hanwha Q-CELLS, with ambitious new factory builds in South Korea.

However, in the past couple of years, a further shift has occurred during which Taiwan cell production has been scaled back, overlapping with the growth of new pure-play specialists in China, most notably Tongwei and Aiko. These new entrants are woven into the fabric of China manufacturing aspirations, being central to the supply-channels that extends back to wafer supply from the likes of LONGi and Zhonghuan, and forward to anyone making a module in China.

Notably, Tongwei and Aiko did not seek to reinvent the wheel: rather, it was more of the same p-type mono and multi, but with the 1GW benchmark of before becoming a staggering 10GW, and expansion plans in multiples of 5GW that appear to rather ignore any red flags in terms of market supply, trade-wars and upstream over-capacity fears.

In fact, without tariffs in place, it is simply impossible for non-Chinese companies to compete with the likes of Tongwei and Aiko, if p-type cell business was the end game. Thankfully, this is not the case. What is has done however is force cell production outside China to concentrate on value-added differentiation, which is basically another way of introducing n-type into the discussion here. More on this below as in relates to the 2019 cell production landscape expected.

Revealing the top-10 cell producers by volume

The first thing to point out is that the list below is preliminary and will be subject to some minor tweaks once we learn more about cell line utilization rates during the past few months of 2018 of all the major cell producers today.

We have a grouping of four companies (JA Solar, Trina Solar, JinkoSolar and Canadian Solar) that can be viewed as global module brand-recognized integrated cell/module producers that all produce multi-GW of cells in-house (in both China and Southeast Asia facilities), while using domestic Chinese third-party cell supply from the likes of Tongwei and Aiko, for example. JA Solar and JinkoSolar have largely repositioned as p-mono PERC cell producers, Trina Solar is in the process of making the change, and Canadian Solar still retaining a multi-loyalty of sorts.

Hanwha Q-CELLS is largely one of a kind when looking at the companies, and the closest thing in solar today that allows us to draw parallels with Korean conglomerate activities in the flat panel display sector. From a global module brand perspective, the company is similar to the four major Silicon Module Super League (SMSL) players above. 

Cell production differs as having a major contribution from South Korea that has been prioritised in recent years for capex, versus the legacy Solarfun sites in China and Q-CELLS in Malaysia.

LONGi Solar also is unique in our top-10 listing in many ways, most notably in the extent of its full value-chain (ingot to module), but in particular the scale and positioning of its ingot pulling business in China. More coverage on LONGi Solar will feature in our subsequent reviews of poly/ingot/wafer production and module-supply blogs on PV-Tech over the next few weeks.

Shunfeng (or from a cell production standpoint Wuxi Suntech) is another one-off in the category above, and the leading example of a legacy Chinese cell/module powerhouse (Suntech) that has managed to sustain production levels at meaningful levels, propped up by the domestic market and in the absence of overseas cell/module options or strong global module business levels. Capex limitations have prevented any major shift from p-type multi production.

As mentioned earlier, Tongwei and Aiko should be grouped together. These companies have been one factor behind the demise of the Taiwan cell industry, and their contributions to cell production will only increase during 2019. It remains to be seen if 20GW cell capacities per company with single-digit margins will simply cause a domino effect of removing even more cell competitors, or if they will get diverted from their current raison d’être through illusions of grandeur (such as trying to become global module suppliers).

Finally, we have the only meaningful thin-film solar cell producer globally today, First Solar, more on which below.

China n-type innovation: a global threat or another turn-key thin-film capex flurry?

Normally one would expect announcements of GW n-type expansions to come from companies that had either spent years learning R&D and pilot-line skills, or companies that had a proven track record in multi-GW of p-type mono cell manufacturing. Or indeed from companies that had existing n-type knowledge and were seeking to grow business levels.

Therefore, it is not crazy to have doubts about n-type capacity expansions in China that have occurred in 2018 and will continue during this year. I will return to this more in other blogs, as trying to explain fully does merit discussion in its own right.

For now however, it should be pointed out that virtually nothing from the top-10 companies shown above is coming from n-type in 2018, and the strategies of almost all the n-type entrants in China in the past 12-18 months are focussed entirely on meeting domestic carve-out needs from Top Runner variants.

But for equipment makers, it is for now a period of capex excitement. And why not? The stakes are very high, and if a few of the new n-type GW plants shows success, this could change the entire solar industry overnight and force n-type onto the immediate roadmap of every solar cell maker globally. 

In 2018 also, many of the p-type cell leaders made first moves into n-type territory and new capacity will come online here in 2019 for sure.

The last major expansion for bespoke deposition equipment in the solar industry (PVD/PECVD) was about ten years ago, in the form of turn-key a-Si based production lines. Several billion dollars was spent with the likes of Applied Materials, Oerlikon and ULVAC, endless resources were afforded to marketing campaigns; today, a-Si is no more than a token gesture and for all purposes dead.

The current n-type landscape is very different however, as it is still the natural roadmap evolution of everything p-type which is over 90% of solar industry annual consumption. And today mono is dominating multi, and we have low-cost ingot pulling in China ready to flip to supply n-type capacity additions. This changes everything, suggesting it is a matter of time for n-type, but just maybe not via the first wave of companies undertaking major investments during 2017/2018.

First Solar gains the technology award for 2018

If awards existed for most-impressive achievement for cell technology in mass production, one may decide First Solar was the winner here in 2018. It is hard to convey how impressive the move from Series 4 to Series 6 has been, or indeed the mere fact that it occurred in the first instance.

In contrast to almost all the capex in China by c-Si cell market-leaders – which was low-risk, low barrier-to-entry large-scale roll-out of known p-type multi or mono (Al-BSF or PERC) that was originally pioneered in mass production by Western companies – First Solar’s Series 4 to Series 6 came on the back of 20 years of in-house R&D investments and a relationship with equipment suppliers that is unique within the solar industry today.

Add to this running Series 4 lines typically at 95-99% utilization rates and moving CdTe module efficiencies to unchartered waters, and you begin to see how First Solar from a cell production standpoint is not simply differentiated in technology (thin-film, not c-Si) but from a manufacturing business perspective.

2018 marks a return to thin-film being a feature of the top-10 cell production rankings, and while Series 6 is still in a ramp-up phase and costs still need to be fully established, it is likely First Solar’s ranking will improve when the summary of cell production in 2019 is undertaken.

PV CellTech 2019 to explain cell production in 2019/2020

Going into its fourth year, the forthcoming PV CellTech 2019 conference (Penang, Malaysia, 12-13 March 2019) will again be the go-to event of the year to hear from the CTO’s of the top-10 cell producers, many of the new n-type companies seeking to disrupt mainstream cell technology in the next 12-18 months, and all the leading equipment and materials suppliers that are key to cost-reduction and efficiency-gains.

PV CellTech has now become the PV Technology Roadmap of the industry, and for the exclusive attendees, offers market insights and networking that drives much of the leading company strategies going forward. The event was sold-out during 2018, so book a place early to ensure participation.

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