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R&D spending analysis of 21 PV manufacturers

PV Tech has been covering analysis of R&D expenditures of PV manufacturers for over a decade. This blog looks at some of the key trends, which are being detailed in full in the forthcoming edition of technical journal Photovoltaics International.

This is the second sequential year that R&D spending exceeded the US$1.0 billion level, although down slightly from US$1,086.86 million (US$1.08 billion) cumulative annual R&D spending of these 21 key PV manufacturers, in 2017. 

Spending pattern divergence

It is interesting to note that R&D spending doubled over a five-year period, growing from 2013 (US$504 million) to 2017 ((US$1.08 billion). Almost all 21 PV manufacturers under analysis were public in 2013 and all had reached that status by 2014. 

However, a continued trend since 2014 has been the growing number of companies that lowered R&D spending, compared to those increasing spending on a year-on-year basis.

Only two companies lowered R&D spending in 2014, while the crossover point was reached in 2017, when 10 companies reduced spending compared to the previous year. This trend continued in 2018, as for the first time the number of companies lowering R&D spending (11) exceeded the number (9) increasing spending on this front.  

There are also two companies (First Solar and Yingli Green) that have lowered spending for four consecutive years since 2015. 

In the 2018 analysis, two companies (Eging PV and Hareon Solar) have lowered spending for three consecutive years, while two companies (ZJ Sunflower, Wuxi Suntech and ) had lowered spending for two consecutive years.

The spending pattern divergence is primarily driven by the financial condition of some of the companies, such as Yingli Green, Hareon Solar, SunPower and others in the past. 

However, the growing number of companies reducing spending in 2018, is also due to the weaker downstream PV market in China, after the Chinese government announced the ‘531 New Deal’ that put a halt to utility-scale and DG markets, as installations were viewed to have far exceeded plans and the market was subsequently overheating. 

It is also interesting to note that due to this trend, only two companies since 2012 (LONGi Group and Zhongli Talesun) have consistently increased R&D spending, year-on-year.

Other companies that increased spending in 2018, included: JinkoSolar, Canadian Solar, SunPower, Tongwei, Hanergy Thin Film, URE, TZS and Comtec. 

The chart below covers the last five years of annual R&D spending of the 21 key PV manufacturers.

The chart shows a group of five companies (First Solar, LONGi Group, Hanergy Thin Film, SunPower and GCL Group) are clearly separated from the pack by a minimum of over US$100 million in cumulative R&D spending over the last five years. 

Despite First Solar and SunPower dropping in the annual rankings, the changes over a five-year period are less pronounced for First Solar, which remains the cumulative R&D spending leader.

These companies are in the high US$500 million spending range through to the low US$400 million spending range, over the last five years. 

However, SunPower’s position dropped two places in the 2018 rankings and has also been replaced by LONGi Group and Hanergy Thin Film in the last five year period. However, GCL Group was closing in fast in SunPower until a significant reduction in R&D spending took place in 2018. 

LONGi Group and Hanergy Thin Film have been two of the three fastest growing companies in terms of R&D spending, notably in the last three years as shown in the chart.

The chart also highlights that three companies (Zhongli Talesun, TZS and Tongwei Group) have formed a second strong group accelerating R&D spending in the last four of five years. 
Zhongli Talesun, TZS and Tongwei Group have an R&D spending range between the very high US$200 million level to mid US$250 million level. 

Below TZS, things also look interesting as the low levels of spending by Yingli Green in the last three years highlight its declining position in the rankings, while Hareon Solar collapsed.

That means the accelerated R&D spending by Risen Energy, JinkoSolar and Canadian solar in the last two years underscores the ability to move ahead of Yingli Green very soon. 

However, it also indicates that they remain a significant distance behind the second leading pack of Zhongli Talesun, TZS and Tongwei Group. Despite the potential to climb slowly up the ranking, primarily because otherS are falling by the wayside, there is every chance the gap to the second group will widen, locking the two major SMSL members in lower middle range rankings. 

This may also be exacerbated by the expected return of two other SMSL members, Trina Solar and JA Solar into the R&D analysis in 2019, as they return to Chinese stock markets. 

As for those companies below Canadian Solar, five years of R&D spending have mainly highlighted the chasm to the lead and secondary leadership group that increasingly looks insurmountable. 

On a side note, we always get questions over the fact that we have previously not published data and charts related to companies’ R&D expenditure as a percentage of revenue. In the past, a key reason was the almost universal rule that companies’ R&D expenditure as a percentage of revenue lay in the 0.8%-to-3% range. The exception had always been First Solar and Sunpower with higher percentages. 

Plotting that in charts would have just shown a very thick slightly wavering line with two occasional spikes. Basically, not much use at all.

However, there is more variability today, so we have shown two examples of R&D expenditure as a percentage of revenue.


In the first sample chart, we have included First Solar and Sunpower to represent the historical high-end of R&D expenditure as a percentage of revenue as well as the inclusion of the two major SMSL’s (JinkoSolar and Canadian Solar) that had been perennial laggards in total annual R&D spending. We have also included a typical example of a relatively small PV manufacturer in the form of Eging PV. 

This selection of companies is a good representation of the historical highs and lows of R&D expenditure as a percentage of revenue.

A key takeaway is that proprietary technology used by First Solar and Sunpower requires, compared to the others, much higher R&D expenditure as a percentage of revenue.

However, being laggards in total annual R&D expenditure as well as a percentage of revenue has historically had little negative impact on JinkoSolar and Canadian Solar, as both have become the largest crystalline PV module manufacturers in the world today. 

In the second sample chart below, we have included three major, China-based integrated PV manufacturers, LONGi Group, TZS and GCL Group and arguably the most closely matched from a business model perspective. 

The main deviation here is that GCL Group can be deemed as the historical major incumbent and has been the largest company in the PV industry by revenue and scale in polysilicon and multicrystalline wafer capacity for many years. 

LONGi Group and TZS have become fast growing companies that have strong R&D spending regimes coupled to strong revenue growth. Indeed, in 2018 both companies R&D expenditure as a percentage of revenue declined at almost the same rates but the reality was that both companies’ total revenue significantly increased over the previous year, while R&D spending increased but clearly at a slower pace than revenue. 

In contrast, GCL Group reported markedly lower revenue in 2018, compared to the previous year. GCL Group companies significantly cut R&D spending, year-on-year, due to financial constraints, causing R&D expenditure as a percentage of revenue to decline. 

Therefore, it could be argued that emerging major players displaying high R&D spending in the last five years have gained significant market share against an historical incumbent. However, GCL has been an investor in TZS as well as SunPower, muddying the waters for a clear-cut comparison. 

Despite continued upheaval in the companies being tracked and those untracked that will surely occur in 2019 as well, it remains somewhat remarkable that over US$1.0 billion was allocated in R&D expenditure in 2018.

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PV industry benchmarks for module technology and bankability are driven by JinkoSolar

The PV industry roadmap – and related metrics of technology and bankability – are now being driven by leading module supplier, JinkoSolar, with others seeking to replicate Jinko’s product line options, trying to differentiate in markets that are receptive to low-cost alternatives, or focusing only on rooftop markets where volumes are lower and sales/distribution efforts are more intensive.

That a leading industry supplier should be setting trends for others to follow may seem rather obvious, but this is the first time it has happened in the PV industry. In previous growth phases, groups of companies sought to maintain a status-quo approach to technology-change, or put so much effort into being number-one for shipments that fiscal diligence was overlooked and came back to hit cash-flows and ongoing business concerns.

The article explains how the current landscape – in which one company is not only dominating supply volumes, but also driving the technology roadmap of the industry – has come about, what this means for global technology and supply offerings for the next 12-18 months, and what other companies are having to do in order to remain competitive going into 2021.

The data and analysis shown is taken from the most recent (June 2019) release of the PV Manufacturing & Technology Quarterly report. The topics and scope of the discussion is also shown to be integral to the forthcoming PV ModuleTech 2019 event in Penang, Malaysia on 22-23 October 2019.

The article also addresses some of the key issues impacting the industry during 2019, including module bankability, bifacial supply, and issues that are ultimately holding back n-type share-growth in the industry today.

JinkoSolar’s multi-to-mono transition close to being complete

There have always been companies in the PV industry that chose to focus on using only mono wafers (either n-type or p-type), either through cell technology selection (HJT or IBC), or as part of a rooftop-only niche product offering to the market.

In recent years, LONGi Solar moved from being a mono ingot/wafer maker to having multi-GW cell/module capacity, and sought to create a brand image whereby mono-only was the strategy, matched with a long-term expansion roadmap that remains loyal to its mono dedication.

However, until a few years ago, multicrystalline ruled PV, with market-share levels of more than 70% typically, and even higher when filtering out non-rooftop and non-China based deployment. In fact, all the module supply leaders of the past decade (with the exception of First Solar) were multi-advocates, and saw ongoing market-leadership status being sustained by the technology type.

JinkoSolar was the first market-leader that got to number-one status (on the back of being one of the me-too multi panel suppliers), and then moved from supply-leader by volume to technology trendsetter. This is something that companies such as Sharp, Suntech, Trina Solar, Yingli Green did not achieve, in part due to erroneous investment decisions but also because the climate for technology-change was not a recognized concept within the industry then.

Indeed, while each of Sharp, Suntech, Trina and Yingli has various forms of backward integrated capacity (mainly across ingots and wafers), there was certainly no plan to collectively change all stages in order to have a new type of ingot-to-module capacity base feeding through to higher specification module supply. This is one of the things that differentiates JinkoSolar, as will be discussed in more detail below.

First, let’s look at JinkoSolar’s in-house cell technology changes, and compare to the industry as a whole (actual cell production). This is best done by looking at the seven-year period from 2013 to 2019, splitting out technology by c-Si/thin-film, p-type/n-type, and Al-BSF/passivation process flow variants. In the graph below Standard is Al-BSF, and Advanced is PERC.

It should be noted that while there are many other technology variants promoted by different module suppliers (half-cut cells, shingled-arrangements, bifacial, etc.), the basic cell types used for all modules should still be grouped (process-flow mandated) into the three simple segmentations outlined before.

The key issue from Jinko’s perspective was to make the multi-to-mono move as soon as it became clear that mono ingot production was becoming a China-based commoditization, and no longer a capacity-constrained and cost-limited low-throughput offshoot of modified semiconductor pullers using equipment made in Germany or Japan.

As soon as LONGi established its first few gigawatts of made-in-China ingot pulling capacity, the dye was cast. This was made even more evident when Zhonghuan joined in and the two companies here set up multi-GW per-annum mono puller additions, almost irrespective of what was happening in the market, with pricing or non-p-type-mono cell proponent. (It almost seems that, like the country as a whole, both companies had a 5-year plan that was not for changing.)

For every c-Si cell maker, either you could sit back and watch the technology-revolution happen (which most did) and enjoy periods when wafer pricing was attractive, or decide to be a front-runner by making the necessary move to mono.

Those that decided to change cell lines (and by default have more mono module supply options), through moving to mono-PERC and having a route today to being competitive in 2020 with bifacial mono-PERC, have been fully vindicated. However, this alone is not enough, and can be seen still as reactive in nature.

The problem with companies that made multi-to-mono moves (or indeed almost every company that made investments into n-type cell lines in the past few years) is that they are completely beholden to LONGi and Zhonghuan when it comes to wafer supply.

Many still view China-solar majors (especially those making polysilicon/wafers) as being somewhat cartel-like (different corporate entities collectively plotting what the landscape looks like to the benefit of one another): therefore, if you want to be a global module supplier and have control over your full cost structure, you cannot have something as important as wafer supply/cost/quality being outside your direct control.

Today, almost every mono-based module supplier is in this predicament. In fact, things get more complicated when the main mono-wafer supplier is itself a company seeking to be a leading global module supplier. When this set of conditions applies, normally there is not a happy outcome for all parties concerned.

Perhaps more relevant then to being a technology-leader is putting in place a c-Si value-chain (ingot-to-module) that is low-cost, high-efficiency mono-based, and this is what JinkoSolar has done in the past few years, and is the only company to make this move. The graphic below shows metrics supporting these changes for JinkoSolar, with Jinko moving towards 100% in-house mono wafer supply during 2020. As part of having a fully-controlled in-house manufacturing supply-chain, this move is highly significant, and allows Jinko to have control over issues such as wafer quality, size (dimensions), thickness and (most importantly) cost/price.

Other factors to be a leading bankable utility-scale supplier

Until now, within this article, I have not mentioned anything to do with capacity-location (origin-of-manufacture), sales/marketing channels globally, or having the foresight of wisdom to diversify supply allocations to avoid the perils of being locked into a short-term bonanza occurring on your doorstep.

Now let’s explain these, and show that being a supply and technology leader in the PV industry needs to have the above issues in place and working effectively.

Manufacturing capacity location is the single most critical factor for any Chinese module supplier, in terms of being able to deal with any tariff-related issue that is at play today, or may happen in the future. Simply put, having China-only cell/module capacity (ingot/wafer is not relevant) is a fundamental roadblock in terms of being a global module supplier. There are options of course, in terms of supplying to China and other made-in-China open markets, as shown most aptly today through the strategy of Risen Energy. Otherwise, Chinese-based companies are left to be part-producers and part third-party customers of the Southeast Asia OEM engine.

It is no coincidence that Jinko, and JA Solar and Canadian Solar in particular, have been at the forefront of Southeast Asia owned cell/module facilities, with Jinko being the only company to have a specific cell-and-module owned strategy (as opposed to still relying on OEM cell or module supply channels, or focusing mainly on either cell or module capacity overseas).

Sales/marketing acumen is directly related to having a successful diversified module channel outlet that allows strong market-share allocations to be achieved in every key utility-scale region of the PV industry. Historically, this has been one of the hardest challenges for all Asian-based module suppliers, not just Chinese. 

Being brand-recognized globally (especially for non-residential PV deployment) is something that most Japanese and Korean companies (with the exception of Hanwha Q-CELLS) largely failed to achieve, and only a small number of Chinese companies have come close also.

Only Trina Solar, Canadian Solar, JA Solar and JinkoSolar have managed this, with Jinko and Canadian today being the front-runners. Others are left to win business (at least for major utility-scale projects) by aligning with parent-owned project-financing (such as Jetion), putting cash up-front with local JV partners or funding vehicles (such as BYD and GCL-SI for example), or playing in cut-throat markets that most wish to avoid at all costs (such as India).

While every Chinese module company has spoken about wanting to be a global player, and seen as a quality supplier while investing heavily in technology, only four companies have managed this: Jinko, JA Solar, Canadian and Trina. 

However, only Jinko has taken this to a non-Chinese based extreme, by basically setting out a goal a few years ago to get Chinese market shipments to single-digit percentage levels at all costs. China has over 100 module suppliers today that have no option but to sell domestically; this is not a good market to be reliant on while global-stage credibility is the ultimate goal.

Does Jinko now hold to key to n-type as a viable contender?

Following through the rationale that the leading module supplier is the technology trend-setter today, it would therefore make sense that any major changes to module technology type would be driven mainly by this company.

This frames nicely the dilemma within the industry over the past few years, where we have companies with limited market-share, heritage in manufacturing, and global strategies being the ones advocating the not-insignificant move from p-type to n-type as a mainstream contender.

The parallels to the a-Si/uc-Si and CIS/CIGS investments a decade ago are evident, with many of the companies announcing n-type investments (this time largely China based) have little or no in-house expertise, and are relying almost entirely on know-how of equipment suppliers. The China example for n-type is even more precarious when the equipment suppliers of choice are themselves China located.

Similar to a-Si/uc-Si and CIS/CIGS thin-film variants, there is no doubt that n-type cells can be made in mass production and high-volume. The problem though is not one of efficiency potential (as it was in part for a-Si and CIGS), but cost and ease-of-manufacture. Indeed, the question of in-house technology-ownership is now more pronounced than ever before in the PV industry; a fact made clear by Jinko’s move to have in-house control of ingot/wafer and cell technology leadership and not dependent on third-party wafer or cell suppliers.

If n-type is to challenge p-type for non-residential/small-rooftop applications, then a global market-share leader has to prioritize the change; this is not happening today other than marketing-related press releases to convey R&D profiles to the outside world.

It may simply be the case that, if Jinko and others (JA Solar, Canadian, LONGi) choose to ignore n-type, and focus purely on a continued efficiency/cost roadmap for p-type mono PERC bifacial variants, then n-type ends up moving from niche (today) to firmly-on-the-backburner (next 2-3 years).

In contrast to previous thin-film differentiated investments of the past however, n-type cannot be discounted, as it still offers the only route to higher cell efficiencies. But the best technology is not necessarily the market champion (think Betamax and VHS video recorder analogy here).

PV deployment is an LCOE/return-on-investment based proposition, and module costs are now a small part of site capex with other factors (mono-facial versus bifacial) way more important today compared to p-type or n-type module offerings. End-markets are being created on a subsidy-free basis also, without the requirement to make any radical technology-driven change in GW-scale manufacturing plants. GW-scale module suppliers are also trying to navigate still-changing trade-based conditions, while holding gross-margins at acceptable double-digit levels.

Logic would therefore support the continued focus on p-type, and this is what we are seeing today. However, if Jinko (or one or two of the other top-5 module suppliers) were to change plans, things would move very quickly as others rushed to stay competitive. But with scales of manufacturing now at the 10GW-level, the barrier-to-entry from any disruptive offering is way higher than it was in the days when GW-scale was the de-facto measure of global supply leadership.

Anyone needing to know exactly what is really happening in technology today – across the top-100 leading global module suppliers – can access this in PV-Tech’s PV Manufacturing & Technology Quarterly report, though this link.

Ranking bankable module suppliers must have a robust ranking metric system

The evolution of the PV industry in 2018/2019 is also highlighting some other major gaps in bankable module supply for investor-driven projects. These type of projects are now the driving force of PV (utility-solar), but the industry is still using rather misleading metrics to rank module suppliers as credible and reliable.

Many companies are still using Tier-1 lists. However, there are typically 35-40 companies ‘claiming’ to be ‘Tier-1-status’. But, for utility projects globally, there are rarely no more than 10 companies (max.) ever considered as bankable. So something is not quite right here it would seem.

Essentially, the Tier-1 lists use quantitative judgements based on somewhat tentative qualifiers, and often lack any systematic methodology that is explained clearly to the industry as whole. Indeed, some Tier-1 lists show the companies by some sort of manufacturing qualifier, such as Annual Module Capacity, often rounded to the nearest GW or 100MW band. Is this nameplate or effective, in-house used or OEM-assigned? Is this using in-house cells or outsourced? In fact, are the numbers even real?

At the forthcoming PV ModuleTech 2019 event in Penang, on 22-23 October 2019, researchers from PV-Tech will be outlining in a series of talks a new ranking methodology that will finally provide utility solar investors with a robust tracking system, upon which to make risk-free investments when choosing module supplier and technology-type deployed. More on this, on PV-Tech, in the coming months.

PV ModuleTech 2019: the must-attend event for global developers, EPCs and asset owners

During the past few years, PV ModuleTech has become firmly established as the leading global event to understand which module suppliers are going to be dominating the global utility-scale deployment stats over the next couple of years.

Only the leading module suppliers are on-stage outlining product availability, volumes on offer to different global regions, and the module technologies that are optimum for each market and site application. Supporting these talks are the leading module materials and equipment makers, providing key indicators for module assembly enhancements likely to flow into mass production next year and how these improvements will increase module performance, quality and reliability.

The other main company category of speakers comes from the important segment that includes factory auditors, independent engineers, and test/inspection/certification labs. The speakers here are often the ones that satisfy due-diligence needs of investors.

In addition to the request from many of the past attendees for a new and robust module supplier/technology ranking system, the other big request for PV ModuleTech this year is to have more detailed presentations and discussions on bifacial modules. Bifacial modules are not a novelty offering anymore, and there is a strong need now for a fully commercial-oriented discussion platform, as opposed to the research-institute led forums that were important to introduce the basics to the industry as a whole.

There are still many ways to participate in PV ModuleTech 2019</a>; please get in touch with us using the contact information at the link here.

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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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