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Top-10 solar cell producers of 2018

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

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

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

Understanding why cell production has changed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revealing the top-10 cell producers by volume

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Solar gains the technology award for 2018

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

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

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

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

PV CellTech 2019 to explain cell production in 2019/2020

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

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

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PV CellTech 2019 agenda to provide clarity on diverse cell technology roadmaps and investments

Technology investments into advanced PV cell manufacturing have been at record levels in the past few years, with high-efficiency concepts seeing investment levels not seen since the days of turn-key thin-film lines a decade ago.

The days of simply adding a new factory with mainstream p-type multi Al-BSF technology are long gone, having been the modus operandi of the PV industry as it moved from 10GW to 50GW per annum production levels.

Being comparable with mainstream production today is not an option anymore when designing new lines and factories for cell production. The question is more focused on: which n-type option should be chosen? Or: how can a 5GW facility move p-mono PERC production costs to levels no-one else can compete with?

This article discusses some of the reasons why the industry has changed radically in the past few years, in terms of cell production and technology, and outlines the topics and sessions to be covered at the forthcoming PV CellTech 2019 conference in Penang, Malaysia on 12-13 March 2019.

Cell technology China-investment drive

When we look at c-Si manufacturing today, we see polysilicon becoming a China-dominated activity, with the prospects for producers outside China very bleak now and getting worse. The only thing that is likely to prevent this could come from government support for local producers or an unexpected trade-war that favours non-Chinese produced poly. Otherwise, polysilicon supply to wafer makers (also in China) appears to be how the PV industry is set to play out over the next phase of its growth.

Similarly, wafer supply is also a China-operations today. There is simply no chance for a company outside China to compete with mono ingot pullers that have 20-30GW of capacity located in low-cost areas of China. If China was still multi-heavy (as it was when GCL-Poly led the way), then there would be a place for overseas mono production. Today however, this is not the case. Mono rules in China and before long, China will supply more than 95% of wafers to the PV industry.

Of course, the above has not come about by chance. This has been a country/state goal, and it has largely played out as hoped for. Indeed, relationships between leading multi-GW poly, ingot and wafer producers in China are not like any other country; collectively they have played together to create a situation where poly and wafer supply ends up fully in the hands of Chinese companies.

The reason for outlining the supply control of polysilicon and wafers is to build up a picture of what is driving cell production and technology today, and how this is impacting on the PV technology roadmap and the current fascination of all-things n-type.

Today, China is in the process of prioritising a few companies to be 10GW-plus pure-play cell producers (although for now each is still harbouring aspirations of global module supply). This is not too different to what happened before with polysilicon and wafers. 

Almost regardless of the technology chosen, a 5GW cell fab in China (with the company having alignment with domestic wafer suppliers and cell/module leaders in China) basically destroys most cell production business plans of western companies in the solar industry today, unless there is true technology differentiation (such as SunPower or LG Electronics) or there are tariffs that level the playing field out in certain countries. 
Overseas operations are then at the behest of China-money (Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia).

The other major China factor impacting cell production and technology today comes from the funding that has been going into n-type variants, in particular heterojunction. Add in here n-PERT and the desire to add other upgrades such as passivated contacts, half-cut, singulated, shingled, bifacial, and multi-grids.

Then ask the question: What is the real PV technology roadmap!

In the past few years at PV CellTech, the event has been highly successful in offering a 2-3 year window into what project developers and EPCs will be confronted with at the module supply level. Therefore, PV CellTech 2019 looks like it has plenty of options to explain and make sense of.

Since the 2018 event back in March, there has been no shortage of ideas for PV CellTech 2019. Here is what we have come up with in terms of the session topics.

Morning Session 1: The cell production landscape in 2019: which technologies are really in mass production today?

This session will set out exactly which cell technologies make up the 100GW-plus being manufactured in 2019. This will involve looking closely at wafer supply, in particular mono wafers for n-type and p-type cell production, in addition to cell capacities and utilizations across the different high-efficiency segments making up the industry today.

Information presented will clarify exactly how much cell production is coming from p-mono PERC, new n-type capacities across n-PERT and heterojunction lines in China. Part of this will include what is available today for mono cell producers (both n-type and p-type) and how mono wafer supply levels are currently playing a key role in mono cell production levels.

Morning Session 2: Keeping both multi and mono p-type cells competitive in the market

During 2018, the PV industry has been equally supplied by multi and mono cell technologies, with mono set to be the market-leader in 2019. This contrasts hugely with the 70-80% market-share levels coming from p-type multi just a few years ago.

Both p-type mono and multi producers have been driving one another to increase cell efficiencies, where operating lines with improved yields, narrower distributions and lower production costs.
This session will hear from some of the multi-GW cell makers that have been instrumental in setting the benchmarks for cost/efficiency across both p-type mono and multi technologies.

Afternoon Session 1: Passivated contacts: what is needed for this process flow to become a mainstream offering in the PV industry?

The widespread roll-out of passivation layers on the rear side of solar cells (from p-type PERC, n-PERT and advanced HJT/IBC) has been instrumental to enable higher-efficiency process flow arrangements. While one of these is clearly the ability to access bifaciality, it has also stimulated production equipment upgrades to both improve passivation layer deposition, but also for passivated contacts, removing the need for laser openings on the rear layer stacks.

Moving to passivated contacts has, until now, been the domain of a small number of advanced n-type cell producers, but is currently been implemented by more mainstream segments of the cell production sector. Starting with n-PERT enhancements (potentially making this technology more differentiated and competitive with best-in-class p-mono PERC producers), the use of passivated contacts may soon see adoption across p-type cell producers, but much is still to be learned if this is really to happen.

This session will explain what passivated contacts are, where concepts such as TOPCon or poly-Si fit in, and what progress has been made so far to bring the upgrade technology to mass production. The presentations will also look at which equipment companies are best positioned to supply drop-in process tools, and what remaining challenges need to be overcome before passivated contacts become a standard, easily-adopted process flow stage for existing and new cell lines.

Afternoon Session 2: Heterojunction cell expansions: is 2019 to be a breakthrough year for Chinese HJT in multi-GW mass-production?

Investments into new heterojunction cell capacities in China can be considered among the most ambitious and disruptive technology threats to mainstream p-type offerings to the PV industry today. Furthermore, the potential performance levels have the scope to threaten existing premium n-type producers, including the only company that has a long track-record making heterojunction cells, Panasonic/Sanyo.

With many of the investments spanning the period 2017-2018, and lines being installed/qualified during the second half of 2018, it seems that 2019 will be the year when first mass-production results will be seen.

This session will focus on the companies seeking to drive new HJT production levels to the 5-GW-level in the next 12-18 months, what average cell efficiencies are coming out of mass production lines, utilization rates and production costs. The goal will be to determine how close these new entrants are to Panasonic-performance and best-in-class China p-type cost, throughput and utilization rates.

This also raises the question of whether heterojunction will re-emerge as the new platform for market-entry (or re-entry) strategies for funding in Europe or other non-Asia regions, especially if the highly-vocal plans from Enel and Hevel stimulate confidence that sufficient differentiation to Chinese n-type or p-mono PERC capacities exists.

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.

There is currently a wide range of upgrade options being pursued by p-mono cell producers, looking at getting the most out of the p-mono cell structure. This includes half-cut cells and singulated strips, 5-to-6 busbars, multi-wire interconnections, and many more efficiency-enhancing process flow changes.

During 2019, and likely into 2020, this will keep p-mono PERC based cells as the mainstream offering to the PV industry. However, what is the intrinsic limitation of the p-type substrate, and how can p-type mono compete if n-type expansions are proven to offer higher output yields with lower manufacturing costs?

This session will review the upper limit of p-type mono, indirectly providing the target metrics that n-type cells must satisfy before they can start taking market-share from p-mono PERC cell producers.

Morning Session 2: n-PERT and variants: benchmarking with state-of-the-art p-mono PERC and HJT/IBC mass production leaders

Multi-GW of n-type PERT lines have been added in China during the past few years, with many companies initially adopting process flows transferred from ECN (starting with the Panda lines installed by Yingli Green almost a decade ago).

Chinese new-entrants over the past few years that wanted to differentiate themselves from multi-GW scale p-type market-leaders typically chose the n-PERT route, as opposed to the more challenging HJT/IBC alternatives. For many companies in China, the goal was to emulate the performance of LG Electronics, but at China cost levels. This story began with Yingli many years ago, had a brief flirtation across non-China proponents in Korea and the US, and then returned to China a few years ago, largely viewing the success in production of LG.

Today, n-PERT producers are being forced to react to p-mono PERC advances, while seeking to approach levels seen from the higher-performing HJT cell platforms. In practice, p-mono PERC advances made the n-PERT investments look poorly judged. However, the reality was that n-PERT efforts had underperformed and needed to be market-leading in performance, not simply using any process flow that involved starting with n-type material.

With some of the leading Chinese cell makers still keen to add high levels of n-PERT based capacity in 2019, can this technology – through adding passivated contacts, multi-wire interconnections and other advanced features – emerge as a viable alternative that bridges the gap between state-of-the-art p-mono PERC and HJT/IBC cell types?

One difference to the non-HJT n-type plans in China during 2019 is the entrance of the major p-type producers, perhaps forced to show n-type pilot-line or GW-plans to the outside world and not wishing to consider HJT until there is more standardization with equipment and costs are better known. 

However, while some of these Chinese companies have >5GW cell capacity, the truth is they are still somewhat novices to the high-spec, advanced cell arena with their p-mono PERC capacities coming after market-leaders such as Q-CELLS, REC Solar, SolarWorld and others paved the route for PERC into mainstream p-type production.

Morning Session 3: Advanced inspection, yield optimization and cost-controlling measures; maximizing the potential of high-efficiency cell production with the lowest production costs

A key challenge for many of the new high-efficiency cell concepts (from p-mono PERC to all n-type variants) is to ramp up production lines with optimized processing, so that the efficiency of cells produced can be predicted and controlled.

This is being enabled today through new inline inspection tools, modelling and feedback loops that can also troubleshoot process tool issues that could adversely impact performance levels. New factories in China are becoming more intelligent as a result of this.

This session will focus on how cell production lines can be optimized and what cost benefits are on offer through higher yields and uptime metrics. The role of inspection and yield optimization has moved to a new level in the industry today – especially in China. Government mandates to move away from legacy manual low-cost operations to fully-automated, true-fab-like manufacturing has created now a production climate that is ideal to move to line optimization through intelligent manufacturing. The use of advanced cell concepts only elevates the importance here.

Afternoon Session 1: PV technology roadmap I: the views of leading cell producers and materials/equipment suppliers

This session is the first of two parts (closing out the event) that focus specifically on the technology roadmap for the PV industry, looking at the next 12-18 months and then out 3-5 years.
Understanding the real PV technology roadmap has been a major challenge for the PV industry during its growth from 1GW annually to north of 100GW today. Even a few years ago, few predicted that p-mono cells would grow from 20% to 60% market-share, for example.

Existing roadmaps – and those shown by GW-level cell makers – are equally confused, with some simply thinking that moving from p-multi Al-BSF to hybrid HJT/IBC cell processing is something that will simply happen in the next 5-10 years as a matter of fact. 

These forecasts fail to account for commercial reality of course.

However, with so many new concepts being championed and strong investments still flowing into technology-differentiated new entrants (often at the multi-GW level of capacity), it is now very important to know in which direction the industry will move, and which c-Si technology platforms may end up being side-lined, in exactly the same way that the industry bypassed a-Si and CIGS options several years ago.

The brutal reality is that when the industry moves from 100 to 200GW it is very unlikely this will see p-multi, p-mono, n-PERT variants, HJT and IBC all being mainstream options. GW-scale then will be niche and being a long voice at the GW-scale in a 200GW end-market may have marketing kudos but is a loss-making game.

Hearing the arguments from leading cell producers and key equipment/materials suppliers is essential though, as part of the overall technology roadmap for the industry. Whether there is alignment here is a different issue and is therefore a key output expected to be discussed during invited panel discussions following the roadmaps presented.

Afternoon Session 2: PV technology roadmap II: forecasts from third-party trade bodies and PV-Tech

How technology evolves in the PV industry remains the most-asked question, and it is fitting that PV CellTech now prioritizes this during the closing sessions of the event as a regular feature.
Many factors drive the roadmap, not simply what may appear as obvious to many or what the current market-leaders hope will unfold going forward. In the past couple of years, mono wafer supply has been the most important issue for the PV cell technology roadmap, effectively moving p-mono from 20% to 60% share-levels.

PV CellTech will therefore close with an interactive Q&A / panel-discussion. Knowing what to expect during the next 2-3 years in cell mass production has been the number-one reason most people have attended PV CellTech in the past: March 2019 looks set to be no different!

How to get involved in PV CellTech 2019

The March 2018 event was sold-out, and we expect March 2019 to be exactly the same. We continue to limit the audience, in order to ensure networking can be done best. The strong interest in the event now from the global cell manufacturing community is again allowing us to be selective in the range of companies needed to make the overall event work.

To attend the event, make suggestions on participation, or give some general feedback to the topics to be covered, please visit the PV CellTech 2019 website here.

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PV CellTech 2019 to showcase new PV Technology Roadmap forum

The fourth PV CellTech conference will take place in Penang, Malaysia on 12-13 March 2019, with the excitement starting to build up once again.

PV CellTech has now firmly become the must-attend event on the PV calendar in order to understand the current mix of PV cell technologies used in existing multi-GW cell fabs, and to learn exactly how cell efficiencies and costs will progress over the next 12-18 months.

When we started PV CellTech back in March 2016, we envisaged the event filling the void that existed in the PV industry between the academic blue-sky research gatherings (such as PVSEC or the IEEE events) and the often-disappointing satellite events that are bolted on to the major trade events that occur during the year (Intersolar, SPI, SNEC, etc.).

However, PV CellTech has now become much more than this, and is now setting the benchmark as the effective PV technology roadmap report, with the ability to track cell processing trends at the GW-level, with most of the CTOs and heads-of-R&D from the top-20 cell makers of the industry giving the presentations on stage at PV CellTech.

This article outlines what to expect at the forthcoming PV CellTech 2019 event on 12-13 March 2019, and discusses a new forum we have created during the two-day event, where the term ‘PV Roadmap’ will be analysed in greater detail than seen at any PV event in the past.

Also, as an added treat, I have used this feature to explain how to forecast n-type adoption rates in the PV industry over the next five years!

Why technology matters today in PV

The timing of PV CellTech (going into its fourth year on March 2019) could not have been better, with the PV industry undertaking the first meaningful technology upgrade seen in over 10 years; namely, the move from multi-to-mono, Al-BSF-to-PERC, and mono-to-bifacial cell operations.

What the industry is currently seeing across downstream channels (phasing out of multi, mono market-share gains, PERC-everywhere, and bifacial making inroads) was actually covered in detail at the first PV CellTech events during 2016 and 2017. In this respect, the event is largely offering a crystal ball into final-module performance levels and site-yields, some two years out.
This is exactly what a technology roadmap should do. Few – if anyone – is remotely interested in 10-20 year technology forecasts that serve to confuse, not assist. Indeed, as we start to finalize the agenda for the March 2019 event, we segment discussions into:

Current state-of-the-art GW-level cell processing; today
Incremental enhancements (such as half-cut/singulated cell designs, alternative means of passivation deposition and contacting, etc.) that can impact on cell performance over the next 12-18 months; near-term
The next major inflection point that we can expect to see gaining traction over the next 3-5 years; mid-term

By far, the most interesting and critical in terms of company competitiveness can be found in the final category above. Can we really predict with confidence the next major shift in mass-production of solar cells? Or how fast it will occur? Read on please…

Why long-term forecasts are not working

If we conveniently ignore the yesteryear PV technology roadmap projections (that would have had us tracking triple-junction a-Si based panels as the leading technology today!), and look purely at the c-Si side of the equation (>95% of the world today still, and no chance of this changing anytime soon), one thing should jump out, as follows:

When the PV industry makes a technology-change, everyone does this at once, or at least over a 12 month period. Examples here include diamond wires for wafering and Al-BSF to PERC for mono cells. To suggest that multi will be phased out over 10 years is not how the PV industry works. For ‘years’, read ‘months’, or have a very good justification why a second-rate technology should exist in an industry once a superior one gains dominant market-share status. (Think VHS-Betamax from a marketing standpoint.)

Therefore, it is best to leave the 10-20 year technology forecasts aside, and ask: what next after p-mono PERC bifacial cells? During 2019, p-mono PERC becomes the mainstream offering (with bifaciality an option that is a consequence of the move to PERC, not a justification).

Lots of ideas, but how many are impartial!

Often, the loudest voices on technology-change come from those that would benefit most: research institute’s seeking technology-transfer revenue streams, equipment makers with unique tool capability, or companies that are early movers into a non-standard niche technology space.

However, these often tend to be diversions from the fundamental driver for technology-change: market-competitiveness. In this respect, if we look at the major changes in technology over the past five years, these have come from LONGi wishing to dominate wafer supply (with low-cost mono pullers in hitherto-unimaginable fab capacities) and early cell movers into PERC (in particular JA Solar).

As such, any key technology upgrade or inflection point in cell manufacturing that may occur in 3-5 years must have a reference point today that has traction with the leading c-Si manufacturers. Indeed, while the past three years have been all about multi-to-mono swing factors, the next move (in the new mono-pulling PV world) will be cell-process driven.

In fact, while multi (cheap, low-barrier-to-entry) casting took PV into the low-cost manufacturing age, it will be mono that moves it from fab-standard to fab-advanced. While we need to be careful not to overuse numeric terminology to characterize any pseudo-paradigm shift, there would be a case for associating the move from multi-to-mono as taking us firmly into Solar Cell Processing 2.0.

Yes, PV was all mono before directional solidification catapulted solar into the mainstream (and away from being a semi-spin-out activity) but there have only really been two main technology phases of the ‘commercial’ GW-solar age: multi-stimulated and mono-finessed.

All mono-roads lead to n-type

Once we accept that PV is in a mono-mainstream era, then we can finally talk about n-type in a way that was impossible before.

Not possible because without plentiful supply of low-cost mono wafers (or indeed sufficient high-purity silicon feedstock), n-type is niche, with cell makers hamstrung by the lack of competitive wafer supply. The industry moving to p-mono PERC today changes everything here.

This takes us back to the multi-to-mono flip being wafer-driven (LONGi and the others), not cell-demanded. Today, arguably, mono has the lowest cost structure for wafer supply (factor in LONGi’s cost-model and underutilization costs eroding multi wafer margins). It is no longer a requirement for mono wafers suppliers to enforce the LCOE argument to ensure a 10-15% ASP delta. PV mainstream is the lowest-cost offering, as simple as that.

As a result of this, there is also an argument to reset the PV technology roadmap, and simply project out what a high-purity low-cost mono wafer supply environment will do for cell makers.

Apart from the inevitable short-term enabler for me-too p-type cell producers to have premium performing cells on the market, crucially it allows n-type plans to have far greater meaning and relevance.

The move from p-type mono to n-type is probably as inevitable as the p-type multi to mono transition that is in mid-flow now and set to conclude in the next couple of years.

Technology-leaders, first-China movers and final-market-winners

The subtitle above perhaps sums up where we are with n-type today: a technology that is still less than 10% of c-Si cell output, but could easily start on a trajectory from 2019 that would make it the mainstream offering in five years from now.

Today, we have three companies that serve to illustrate that the three n-type variants (PERT, HJT, IBC) can be manufactured at the GW-scale with (STC) efficiencies above the best-in-class p-type offerings.

Indeed, if we factor in temperature coefficients, then the case for n-type is utterly compelling. The only thing lacking from these three companies is low-cost multi-GW production as part of a corporate operating model that can live with the resulting modules sold having gross margins in the 10-15% range.

SunPower, Panasonic (Sanyo-technology-inherited) and LG Electronics remain the technology-leaders today, and the ones that others seek to emulate from a process technology standpoint.

Then we have the first-China movers; a group of companies that have accessed funds in China in the past few years and equipped factories with tools to make up production lines. This represents a mixed bag by all accounts, with a technology-hunger that cannot be questioned. Knowing how to make high-efficiency cells however is a totally different matter, and cannot be ‘bought’.

Moving into GW-scale n-type production is not something that is easily carbon-copied through aligning with equipment suppliers, in the way that most of China was able to get into p-type cell production (in particular multi) in the past.

The reason for this is very simple. The three n-type companies that have succeeded in understanding how to make n-type cells have owned the IP and instructed tool makers what to do: not the other way around. Therefore, the tool makers are not (yet) the conduits of processing know-how, although many do have exquisite single-step expertise in-house; as every tool maker knows, the whole line is an altogether different proposition.

It is highly unlikely any of the n-type cell producers in China today will emerge as market-leaders in 3-5 years from now. However, in terms of the overall move from p-type to n-type, they will command a role of sorts; perhaps if only to highlight that premium cell production is a skill learned, and not one for sale today on the supermarket shelves.

The n-type market-winners

Maybe not the eventual winners, but at least the winners in the first post-p-type technology migration; perhaps the most important sign can be seen by the fact that the threat of n-type by the China-early-movers has forced the SMSL cell makers in China (not to mention the new pure-play multi-GW makers) to be ready for GW scale deployment if needed.

Almost certainly within the next 12 months, we will hear about the first GW expansion plans from the c-Si market leaders. When this happens, everything changes for n-type.

However, perhaps it is best to pause for now!

The reason for the extended n-type discussion above is very simple: it is one of the key themes for PV CellTech 2019, and the stimulus behind the extended PV Technology Roadmap session that will occupy the entire afternoon on the closing day for the event.

Themes for PV CellTech 2019

For those that have attended PV CellTech over the past three years, the scope of the event will be the same: hear from the CTOs of the leading cell makers; understand the manufacturing landscape over the next 12-18 months; find out the new production tools gaining traction in cell lines; find out the progress of the new cell entrants; determine how much cell production will come from China and the rest of the world; discover the new cost envelope for cell production at the multi-GW scale and what steps are being used to drive cell production costs to 3c/W and below.

The new feature will be the PV Technology Roadmap session that will cover the whole of the afternoon on day 2. This is expected to be an annual must-attend part of PV CellTech going forward, and will seek to establish the next major changes that will form the basis of cell production as the industry moves from 100GW to 200GW annually.

Over the next month, we are putting the final touches to the agenda for PV CellTech 2019. To get involved, or to sign up to attend before the event is sold-out, please visit our event website here.

What will actually determine n-type market-share adoption?

One of the reasons why so many people get technology forecasting wrong is that they don’t grasp that it is the combination of several factors, and not simply what should happen based on Excel spreadsheet calculations that churn out efficiency and costs for fun.

In the PV industry, the two most critical factors are a) the size of the overall market for modules (read cell production volumes), and b) the ability of companies to raise funds to add capacity or perform technology upgrades.

Once the technology case is largely ‘made’, then the above two factors determine the ‘rate’ at which the adoption takes place. This has explained the multi-to-mono transition today, and will certainly drive the n-type adoption rates soon.

To understand this, let’s look at a couple of examples that should help explain.

On the first one (a.) – addressable market size – if you imagine that there is a maximum 60GW of mono wafer supply, and everyone wants mono as the preferred technology, then mono has 60% of a 100GW market. If the market is ‘soft’ (lower than the expected 100GW), then mono still supplies 60GW but by default has a larger market-share: and vice-versa in a 120GW market, the share of mono is less and multi fills the space happily.

On the second one (b.) – investment climate – this is somewhat easier. The willingness and ability to raise funds is essential to enable a technology change that would need new factories, upgrade tools, more R&D, etc. A depressed market with a government mandate to minimize capex is not good for driving through technology change.

The combination of the two then plays the key role in the rate of technology adoption.

I have attempted to show this in graphics below. First, Figure 1 shows the dual-baseline forecast for technology out to the end of 2022. This assumes nothing earth-shattering in terms of annual demand growth over the next five years (take your pick in the 15-20% CAGR band here), and modest capex that keeps existing market-leaders competitive while allowing new entrants to be added to the mix.

Now, we move into the real world a bit more!

In terms of a. (the TAM), downside is a soft-market growth projection, with the phrase ‘sellers-market’ used to illustrate an end-market where ‘anything-sells’, including all the multi that can be made to meet the shortfall not being supplied from mono.

2018 was ‘almost’ a sellers-market, at least if you made-and-sold in China, for example, explaining why so much multi was made/sold last year.

In terms of b. (investment climate), profitless-prosperity is used to describe a world of zombie-companies sitting on a mountain-of-debt, and barely able to raise funds for capex. (OK – this is extreme, but you should get the picture here. Call it austerity if you want.) Conversely, we have an investor-confident market where raising funds for capex is relatively straightforward.

Here is what I come up with now, when looking specifically at n-type adoption over the next five years.

Very simply, red boxes are n-type adoption-negative, and green ones positive in which the rate of adoption for n-type (relative to the dual-baseline shown in Fig.1 above) is higher than shown.

If you have a spare few minutes, now think about how the multi-to-mono flip has evolved. This year (when the 50% share is breached by mono), we have had a soft demand climate on the back of capex highs in the new technology (mono wafers, PERC). That is – the green-box bottom left – the best-case scenario for technology adoption rates.

I think I’ve just figured what I need to talk about at PV CellTech next March in Penang, as the opening talk in the PV Technology Roadmap forum! This gives me four months to refine the explanation, and hopefully factor in whatever will happen in the industry between now and March 2019.

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Multi-GW India manufacturing challenges to be the focus of new PV IndiaTech 2019 conference

During the past few years, we have had numerous requests at PV-Tech from a wide range of PV industry stakeholders (due mainly to the success of the PV CellTech and PV ModuleTech series of conferences) to launch an India-specific PV event in Delhi. The requests have come from Indian companies, overseas investors, government bodies, trade associations, and both upstream/downstream industry activists seeking to understand and drive future developments.

As a result of these requests, and given the key stage Indian PV manufacturing is going through today, we have decided to launch an annual event in Delhi, dedicated specifically to India PV manufacturing. PV IndiaTech 2019 will have its premiere on 24-25 April 2019.

This article discusses the need for such an event, and what the key objectives will be from the conference. More broadly, I outline here also just why any company with global PV aspirations (across the entire PV value-chain) either has, or needs to have, a carefully considered India-PV-strategy plan.

Once you have absorbed all the information, it would be great to get your thoughts on PV IndiaTech 2019, and how we should configure the event with the correct mix of global stakeholders needed to move the industry’s manufacturing forward over the next 10-20 years.

Unique focus on manufacturing that bypasses short-term opportunism

Every country that embarks on a solar or renewables plan does so with lofty ambitions of creating an indigenous manufacturing landscape that results in high-quality sustainable job creation. Conversely, no government wishes to bankroll a deployment gold-rush that ends up being cornered by Chinese imports. Chapters of thesis could be filled simply by solar activities in this regard over the past few years.

For the countries that have sought to impose domestic manufacturing restrictions, whether to bail out domestic companies such as in South Korea and Taiwan or show evidence of token manufacturing efforts by way of module assembly plants, there has been all too often an air of short-termism.

Linking a viable domestic manufacturing sector with a risk-free long-term pipeline needs a government commitment that extends beyond 10 years, and in this respect, we can start to see just why PV manufacturing ambitions within India today are different from anywhere else globally.

But there is much more. India has an embedded goal of being seen on the global stage as a high-quality technology leader, and not simply another Asian country (post Japan, Korea, Taiwan) that has labour costs or a sophisticated OEM-culture as its primary drivers (Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam). This largely captures the Make-in-India mantra, but for solar there is also the deployment (energy demand) driver that moves things to another level.

Fundamentally, India is the only country today that has a multi-decade forward-looking plan – championed by the current Prime Minister – that covers both deployment and upstream full value-chain manufacturing. No other country comes remotely close to this, with the exception of China (that is barely open for business when it comes to inward investment).

What India wants is a massive challenge

India wants to have a solar manufacturing sector that has the technology-brand of Japan or South Korea, the processing capability of Taiwan, the cost structure of China and the inward-investment lure of Malaysia. And to top it off, the final product performance and quality will allow leading producers to access both domestic needs and export opportunities.

As aspirational as it may sound, if you don’t have those ambitions from the start, you are almost certain to fail. The issue with India though is that we are a long way away from this, when we look at the country’s manufacturing sector today and the ongoing tumultuous relationship it has with its downstream suppliers.

During the past couple of decades, there have been many plans tabled to unleash a multi-GW eco-system value-chain of PV manufacturing. Almost all of these were lauded by eager publicity-seeking activists, but many began and finished at the ceremonial MOU phase, never to be heard of again. Those were the days of polysilicon plants being built or thin-film factories piggybacking on the country’s displays-oriented ambitions.

What finally did emerge in the early days of India solar (that remains until today) can be seen, for example, at Greater Noida (Indosolar) and Hyderabad (then-named Solar Semiconductor), in what were the first purpose-built ‘modern’ cell fabs in the country. In fact, during an early trip to India almost 10 years ago, I remember vividly the pride that India has entered the fab-era.

The start-stop production characteristics of these early entrants, in addition to the never-ending existence of various state-owned loss-making solar business units, seems a long way off, given what has happened in the past few years that starts to paint a picture of what this India-solar paradise may look like if the different stakeholders can make it work.

Government driven upstream and downstream finance

The launch of the National Solar Mission within India changed everything. It put to an end to the notion that pure-play cell production could compete as an export industry. It created a multi-GW end-market that caught the attention of the world. It was inherited by a Prime Minister (Modi) that has no equal anywhere else in the world when it comes to an inherent love of solar and an understanding of how it can transform India as a global leader in a post-fossil-fuel world.

The long-term commitments by Modi for deployment of solar within India serve as the most risk-averse guilt-edged market driver that could be imaginable. Yes, there is downside that accompanies this rapid growth in India, and I will touch on this later in the article. But, either way, any other domestic solar segment globally would readily have this problem in exchange for a constant pipeline of opportunities.

During the past few years, the concurrent upstream drive has come from a succession of attempts to restart domestic cell and module production, through safeguarding, domestic-content carve-outs and the latest Solar Energy Corporation of India’s (SECI) tendering for 3GW of manufacturing linked with deployment guarantees.

Running alongside these policy-driven initiatives, there is of course Adani, and the Mundra-chapter in India-PV, where the multi-sector, multi-national, multi-billion-turnover conglomerate sought to self-fund a micro-solar eco-system at the GW-level.

As of now, none of these efforts has succeeded, and in almost every case (and of course with hindsight) one can easily point the finger at naïve-ambition or a general lack of awareness of technical and commercial factors that underpin the global solar manufacturing sector today.

However, what these efforts reveal is intention, or perhaps a crash-course in PV manufacturing learning that should serve to get it right going forward.

Getting it right

If there was a simple domestic recipe to scale up multi-GW solar manufacturing, spanning ingot/wafer and cell/module production with profitability, there would be PV fabs all around the world, and trade-related barriers would never be heard of. Similarly, if there was a means of curbing global China-export domination, the world would look radically different today.

As such, there is no slight on any of the proponent’s motives, nor should one take apart the flawed assumptions that ultimately led to non-success.

Regardless of the 25GW of solar deployed today within India, and the failure of the previous domestic manufacturing efforts, one should still see India at the start of a journey, perhaps even just finishing its formation lap.

The long-term goal remains intact: being a global PV manufacturing powerhouse, driving domestic demand and having an export-market for any surplus. And critically, there remains the promise of finance through direct government budgeting and inward-investment vehicles including overseas government agreements and energy/infrastructure investment vehicles.

In this respect, there is almost an inevitability that multi-GW PV factories will emerge within India over the next 5 years, but the fundamental question remains: can they get it right?


Finding a route where everyone benefits has to be the solution

Understanding what has to happen in the short-term is inextricably linked to what a successful outcome looks like; and working back to what steps need to happen to fulfil this.

The successful outcome sees many parties benefiting in different ways, but most seeing this through short-term profitability, healthy returns-on-investments or market-favourable asset-values. Other stakeholders – in particular the Indian government and overseas countries that have intrinsic connections – benefit directly and indirectly in terms of global leadership and secondary diplomatic positioning in a renewables-dominated climate.

However, it would appear today that the ingredients for success boil down to a few key issues that need to be resolved:

What stages in the value-chain (for c-Si manufacturing) are of value for Make-in-India? Is it necessary to install ingot pulling capacity or should the focus be firmly on cell production, with matched module assembly capacity?

Which technologies need to be selected today for manufacturing investments that – by the time the facilities are operational – are state-of-the-art in terms of cell efficiencies and panel performance?
How do GW-scale factories get completed in Chinese-based timelines of 3-6 months, and retain the flexibility in adopting any technology-adoption cycles that may impact the industry going forward?
What is needed to manufacture with profitability? Is the model based purely on buying wafers from China and hammering down in-house costs on a quarterly basis, or is there a supplier/customer model that sees both parties sharing profit margins?
What is the role of overseas companies, and how can they add value to the Indian sector, and not simply be a strategically-funded platform to expand global reach?
How can the downstream segment within India (developers/EPC/investors) benefit financially from the increased availability of Indian-made PV modules (using domestic produced cells and possibly even wafers)?
What policy-driven, government-backed vehicle can make the above questions work in parallel?

These questions are possibly the most pertinent when considering how India moves forward with PV manufacturing, and to get to the bottom of these it is clear that a broad range of stakeholders need to be part of the overall decision-making process: something that has probably not occurred until now.

PV IndiaTech to provide global platform to facilitate India-PV planning

In order to address the questions listed above, it is clear that a forum needs to be created that hears the voices of the different parties that will be needed to fashion a plan that works to everyone’s benefit.

This is the fundamental goal of the PV IndiaTech conference, the first event due to be held in Delhi on 24-25 April 2019.

While there are numerous PV events within India these days – as would be expected from a 10GW-level annual end-market – the role of PV-Tech, as a leading global PV platform and the host of the PV CellTech and PV ModuleTech events, should not be underestimated. India needs global expertise and a connection of its upstream/downstream segments, while having the understanding of which roadmaps are worth aligning with to be industry-competitive going forward; and also welcoming the expertise that exists from the correct overseas technical and financial investors.

We are currently in the process of finishing off the agenda for the forthcoming PV IndiaTech 2019 conference, including key partners, speakers and event contributors. If you would like to feed into this process, or be part of the event in Delhi on 24-25 April 2019, then please reach out to us by email at, or drop me a line directly (by clicking on my name at the top of this article) with your ideas and suggestions.

During the build up to PV IndiaTech 2019, PV-Tech will be taking a closer look at many of the issues raised within this article, as well as highlighting the event in Delhi including interviews with all the parties seeking to find a solution to unlocking the potential of Indian PV manufacturing over the next 10-20 years.

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China-531 to accelerate demise of multi; polysilicon consumption decline to 3g/W by 2022

Much has been written and voiced over the past couple of months in the PV industry, following the so-called China-531 policy announcement that finally provided a wake-up call to Chinese manufacturers that their domestic end-market was not going to be allowed to maintain its near-exponential growth characteristics.

The focus from many was simply to look at the changes in demand figures from China for 2H’18 and 2019, and the net effect on global demand. A few have speculated at the inevitable fall-out in terms of China-centric producers/suppliers at the cell/module level, not to mention to rush to hit the export-button in light of declining domestic order books.

These changes are somewhat obvious however. Equally so – but perhaps with bit more naïve – are the instant conclusions that module ASP price erosion will cause some kind of knee-jerk elasticity, enabling unviable end-markets today to burst into action. If only life was that simple!

Over the past couple of months, our in-house market research team at PV-Tech has re-adjusted our forecasts for the PV manufacturing segment, post China-531, timed to overlap with the release this week of our latest PV Manufacturing & Equipment Quarterly report release.

The impact of China-531 turns out to be far more reaching than the quick back-of-the-envelope issues raised above, and potentially has the catalyst to provide some of the most dramatic technology changes in the industry, feeding through to stronger-than-expected declines in polysilicon consumption that are particularly relevant today given the massive polysilicon plant expansions ongoing by the likes of Tongwei and GCL-Poly.

All data and graphics shown below are sourced directly from the new report release, with the feed coming from updated analysis on more than 100 of the leading PV manufacturers across the value-chain from poly-to-modules, accounting for 90-95% of the industry’s entire production quota today.

Module supply softness: the nail-in-the-coffin for multi

For the past couple of years, we have been explaining exactly what is dictating the mono/multi balance in the PV industry. It is worth a quick read up on the May 2017 article I wrote on PV-Tech: Mono and multi production 50:50 in 2018, but mono is the future.

In this piece, I laid out the factors that would ultimately dictate the rate of market-share gains from mono, with two main caveats, copy and pasted from the May 2017 article as follows:

a) If the industry contracts, or even remains static, it will only increase the rate of mono market-share gains over multi, as mono is tight in supply and has the scope to be competitive with multi now. In this scenario, multi is wiped out faster than expected.

b) Conversely, if the market over-performs, and ends up over 85GW [for 2017] (don’t discount for one second), then multi has a lifeline due to the supply constraints of mono. And potentially more time to get its act together for low cost wafering and cell efficiency improvements.

We picked up on the mono/multi activity just after China-531, in an article here. See the section in this article titled: “Mono adoption almost certain to be fast-tracked now with muted objections.”

However, now that we have done our analysis for the new report release, it seems the transition to mono is much faster than we had forecast even a few months ago. I will explain this more now.

Even without any dramatic change in the PV technology roadmaps of the leading cell makers, mono was set to dominate the industry in 2019, and multi would be phased out slowly over the following 3-5 years. But when we now look at the changes that have been undertaken by the leading cell makers (and module suppliers), the acceleration to mono (and accompanying elimination of multi) is much more pronounced.

This can be seen clearly in the new 5-year technology forecasting we have now done. It should be noted that our forecasts on technology are the only ones being done in the industry that look entirely bottom-up across the 100+ major companies supplying approximately 95% in 2019. Other companies doing forecasts only look top-down, and do not consider the impact on the overall market expanding or contracting.

The graphic below is fundamental to the entire forecasting in our report, and covers not just to the end of 2022, but is producer specific by quarter out to the end of 2020. The two graphics shown here refer to our forecast 3 months ago (left) and the one done in the past few weeks for the new report (right).

The above forecast may seem rather bold to many in the industry, especially those that are still clinging to p-multi PERC (half-cut of whatever) being competitive with mono going forward. Indeed, for EPCs and developers looking at their multi-GW of 72-cell p-multi module sites of the past few years, it might be hard to imagine things would change so quickly.

But this appears to be happening

So, how come the technology that was dominant just last year, in 2017, is being forecast to be removed from the industry in just 3 years? In fact, not just dominant in 2017, but p-type multi has been at 70-80% of the solar industry shipments during its entire growth phase from GW-per-annum to 100-GW last year.

The answer here come from p-mono being superior in every aspect to p-multi. Anything that can be done with a multi wafer can be done better with a mono wafer. Efficiency improvements have wider process windows with mono, and the resulting efficiency enhancements are greater on mono than multi.

The only thing that made multi the market standard was low-cost ingot casting (as opposed to high-purity mono ingot pulling). Multi casting became a 50-GW-plus commodity business in China (spearheaded by GCL-Poly). The barrier to entry was low: polysilicon purity requirements were low. China as a result grew to its current level of supplying 90% of all wafers to the PV industry.

Mono pullers entered the PV industry adapted from semiconductor. No firm worked out a recipe to scale production to the GW-level, far less work out a low-cost structure. Then LONGi entered the scene and everything changed. Regardless of what happens with LONGi as a company over the next decade, it will always be remembered as the catalyst that ushered in mono during the 100-200 GW annual demand phase of the industry.

Others in China followed LONGi’s low-cost multi-GW fab approach in the past few years, and many others are now diving into this space – something essential for mono to fully eradicate the use of multi in the industry. Expect this to be a massive deal from a technology standpoint in 2019, in the mainstream press.

But, mono wafer supply is just one part. The shift to mono always needed the cell side to drive it also. While the industry was happy to ship 72-cell multi panels to utility sites (the PV world outside China mostly until now), and pure-play makers such as those in Taiwan were mostly incapable of making any technology change, the factors supporting LONGi’s mono claim (‘mono is the future’) were faltering somewhat.

Enter PERC a couple of years ago, and the cell-side prompt came into being.

SMSL technology-flip possibly the final piece of the mono jigsaw needed

As such, during 2017 and the start of 2018, the Silicon Module Super League (SMSL) companies started one-by-one to change their mono/multi mix, and the cell technologies being used (both in-house made, and third-party supplied).

The first to embrace mono was JA Solar, followed by JinkoSolar, and now Trina Solar. LONGi is already fully-mono at the cell/module side, GCL-Poly is painstakingly moving off its parent legacy-multi advocacy, and Canadian Solar is almost certainly start being vocal about mono-PERC during the next few months. Hanwha Q-CELLS now has strong capacity levels of p-mono PERC, and is fully capable of flipping multi lines to mono, or taking excess multi capacity (likely in China) permanently offline if needed.

Now look at the graphic below, if you are still in doubt about the rapid mono transition.

Therefore, if the industry (as a whole) softens in term of annual demand, then the percentage of modules supplied by the SMSL only increases. This is further true since the contraction in demand is basically a China-affair in the near-term, and the Chinese cell/module makers that have no meaningful overseas business are forced to cease production. This portion of the industry has been multi-heavy in recent years, and with minimal-if-any R&D/technology focus.

Pure-play cell making returns – but now mono-based

The next piece of the mono-jigsaw can be seen in another recent development in the industry – this time purely at the cell manufacturing stage.

When PV was growing from a few GW’s per annum to tens of GW’s, there was a home for pure-play cell makers, either in Taiwan or China. Then, pure-play was all p-type multi. Some of the companies now recording multi-GW module shipments started life as a pure-play multi cell producer (Q-CELLS, JA Solar). Few survived, and the past 3-4 years in Taiwan has been rather painful to watch, while the companies there finally converged on a business models that were based on module supply, not cell shipments.

Pure-play cell making has at best been a zero-sum-game. Loss making has been prevalent, and cell makers are either being squeezed by wafer suppliers or module customers. In the past few years, pure-play cell operations has been firmly a loss-making exercise.

Enter China pure-play 2.0 and the development of Tongwei and Aiko Solar. Somewhat resurrected out of the ashes of legacy Chinese manufacturing that was serving the European market in days gone by, these companies have now become the new face of pure-play cell activity in the 100-GW-plus solar industry.

There are two key differences with the pure-play cell approach now of Tongwei and Aiko. First, the scale of economy, with 10-GW level cell capacities across each company emerging in 2019. However, perhaps the more relevant issue comes down to technology: p-mono PERC. In this respect, it is another massive marker supporting the above mono/multi switch in the industry.

In contrast also to pure-play cell activities in the past (in particular from Taiwan), the two Chinese companies are fully integrated into the Chinese c-Si manufacturing system, making them integral to the overall wafer/cell/module strategies of upstream and downstream partners. In this respect, plans for mono ingot capacity levels, and mono module assembly capacities inside/outside China, are made rather at arms-length with the supply channels of p-mono PERC cells coming from Tongwei and Aiko.

This changes the pure-play model from before, and it allows companies such as Canadian Solar or other SMSL players to control in-house and third-party mono cell supply, without having to rely upon ramping up excessive cell capacity that may have underutilization patterns on seasonality or module supply cycles of the industry. And of course, it removes the capex hit for these module suppliers at a time when module ASPs are declining faster than cost reduction measures.

The mono cell capacity levels of Tongwei and Aiko also become important to mono ingot/wafer supply levels (not to mention new high purity polysilicon additions in China during 2018-2020 from the likes of GCL-Poly and Tongwei’s subsidiary polysilicon activities).

The graphic below show our forecast of mono-PERC capacity from these two companies. Plotted here are the effective annual capacity levels, not the nameplate capacities that have ramp-up and phased line deliveries across the calendar years in question.

Polysilicon consumption to see further g/W reductions

The China-531 effect is not good news for polysilicon producers. Even before the China-531 announcement, polysilicon supply/demand had been set for imbalance and shakeout, owing to the massive plant expansions underway by GCL-Poly and Tongwei in particular.

Regardless of any change in technology (more mono, more n-type, more of anything higher-efficiency) any downward adjustment of PV demand owing from reduced installations in China from 2H’18 onwards, simply compounds what was shaping up as a bleak time for polysilicon makers.

We have discussed in the past couple of years just how much polysilicon g/W levels were being eroded, driven by increasing mono market share, higher efficiency cells coming from PERC, and the rapid transition from mono and then multi from diamond wire saws for wafering.

The last blog I wrote on this in February 2018 – Polysilicon consumption to decline below 4g/W in Q3 2018 – revealed the move towards blended polysilicon consumption falling below 4g/W during 2H’18.

During the recent updates to the PV Manufacturing & Technology Quarterly report, we have updated our polysilicon model, looking out to 2022, factoring in the changes in mono market-share, one of the key parts of the decline to 4g/W and below during 2018.

We are now in a position to forecast polysilicon consumption continuing its rapid decline. During 2022, the figure will decline below 3g/W by year-end, with an average during the year close to 3.0g/W.

Furthermore, these declines are only conservative and cautious in nature, and there are more upsides and downsides the rate of decline, if we assume a larger-than-expected wafer thickness forecast, or more n-type, or more adoption of multi-wires to replace busbars.

The graphic below shows two slide to illustrate our forecast for polysilicon.

The graphic to the left above shows the rapid decline in polysilicon consumption, revealing 50% silicon consumption in 2022, compared to ten years earlier. However, the graphic on the right is by far the more interesting. This shows the annual decline contributions to the g/W decline.

The main contributions so far have come from cell efficiency increases and kerf loss reductions (including diamond wire saw adoption across mono and multi). From 2020 to 2022, the main contribution is coming from mono displacing multi.

If we focus on 2018 onwards, the simple calculation is to say that there will be a 25% reduction from 4g/W to 3g/W in 2022. For example, a supply level of 100 GW (thin-film and c-Si panels) needs approximately 420k MT of polysilicon, growing to 480k MT in 2022 (assuming c-Si panel supply of 160 GW).

The swing factor of course is forecasting PV demand in 2022, not to mention 2H’18! However, running with these numbers as a starting point, this serves to show the diminishing need for increased polysilicon relative to market growth.

Right now, we have a situation with polysilicon utilization vastly reduced compared to 1H’18 operations (especially in China), yet we have about 200k MT of real expansions ongoing where the companies are looking to ramp to operations between now and 2020/2021.

Is there logic here, or am I missing something?

The current thinking in China appears to be no different to before. Add capacity, and others will be forced out of business, shuttering sites permanently. This is accompanied by the expectation that lower purity polysilicon plants will not be able to upgrade to mono wafer requirements (as has been shown during the past few years where China needed OCI and Wacker for high purity material).

It is by all accounts a risky proposition to assume the demise of others, but there will be many changes to polysilicon plant build-outs in the next few years, and expansion phases can quickly be brushed under the carpet if need be.

Access the full data set from PV-Tech Research

The speed of change in technology today is considerable, and working out how this impacts producers across the entire poly/ingot/wafer/cell/module phases can be extremely challenging. Looking at the top-down forecasts offer a reference point, but the analysis has to be bottom up and biased to the companies with leading and growing market-share contributions as the real drivers.

To access the latest release of the PV Manufacturing & Technology Quarterly report (from which all the data/graphics above are taken), including the bottom up forecasts across the leading 100+ producers in the PV industry today and going forward, please follow the contact links here.

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With PERC technology, low efficiency manufacturing capacities to be eliminated in the next two years

The global PV market witnessed a strong demand in 2017, with 102GW of newly added capacity, a 37% year on year increase. With its 53GW of new capacity, China  topped the rankings for a fifth consecutive year.

“According to data from various organizations and feedback from our own markets and customers, demand in the global PV market will continue to be strong, and will, in general terms, not be less than that of the last year. This year might find itself at a crossroads with policy-led regional structural changes for demand and adjustments in technical roadmaps, which would affect demand to a certain extent” said Dr. Shi Weili, Chief Executive Officer, DK Electronic Materials, Inc. (DKEM).

As one of the metallization solution providers for high efficiency cells, DKEM has kept a close eye on trends in market supply and demand in both the upstream and downstream segments of the PV industry chain, especially in the manufacturing capacity for cells.

Dr. Shi said: “In recent years, global cell capacity has actually been in a situation of oversupply. From capacity data from last year till now, new capacity expansion is continuously increasing, and substantially. However, we have also seen another positive sign – the proportion of high efficiency capacity is rising, including through technical upgrades and new capacity investment; especially after this new year, the iterative rate of black silicon and PERC technologies is accelerating.

After one to two years’ evolution, and with PERC technology as the spring board, low efficiency capacity could be largely wiped out, optimizing the scale and quality of the entire cell manufacturing capacity. As for high efficiency metallization paste suppliers, we have a positive attitude towards this transformation. Since 2016, the competition in conductive silver pastes has become white-hot, with many new players entering the industry segment. 

The advancement towards higher efficiency technologies for cell capacities would certainly push the requirements for conductive silver pastes even higher, including quicker response, continuous R&D investment and stable product quality, which would be beneficial for conductive silver paste to return to tech-driven cost reducing roadmaps.”

Multi remains mainstream with mono developing rapidly

Another emphasis for  material suppliers is on the high efficiency cell technology road map where,  among numerous others, black silicon and PERC have been deemed  cell technology key words of the year. At the same time, Multi-busbar (MBB) and Shingled technologies are considered to be module technology key words, and which of these will stand head and shoulders above others is the focal point.

From the supply end, in the last two years domestic metallization paste companies, represented by DKEM, have grown rapidly, and due to the fact that they have been in a circle of high iterative rate for cell technologies, the proportion of products supplied by silver paste companies reflects to a certain extent the mitigation of cell technology road maps.

It is understood that DKEM currently has a similar ratio of supplied conductive silver paste products for both the mono- and multi- type  markets, with diamond wire and black silicon pastes as main products and mono- / mono-PERC slurry at a slightly lower level  but increasing rapidly.

“From the cell technology point of view, PERC is a major innovation, but it has gone through a long process from the original innovation to mass production. These cells have strict requirements on conductive silver pastes for low temperature firing and contact ability.

Black silicon is another of the ways to achieve mass production, by process or process innovation, using polycrystalline diamond wire for cutting. After the conductive silver paste overcomes such problems as printability on black silicon textured surfaces, contact and pulling force,  mass production can been quickly reached. MBB and shingled products, on the module level, are also a process innovation, only the requirements for MBB are more from the pursuit of lower metallization costs, where yield rate for soldering is a huge challenge.

The requirements for shingled products are from the pursuit of higher module performance and power. The selection and utilization approaches of metallization interconnect materials for shingled modules are critical and the industry has not yet reached a conclusion. The good thing is that both of these two processes are highly compatible with different cell technologies, but MBB and shingled products themselves compete with each other to a certain extent, meaning that everyone is cautious on investment.” Dr. Shi said.

Faced with the controversial “mono- or multi-” problem, Dr. Shi believes that it is not necessary to dispute on a technology level. In general, the effectiveness of advanced cell processes or technologies is greater on mono-type products than on polycrystalline, which may also be one of the reasons why the rapid developments in cell technology in these past two years have led to larger  power differences. Polycrystalline itself also has advantages, and the key lies in the price / cost performance and market demand.

DKEM has solutions which support both mono- and multi- type products. At the recently concluded SNEC event, DKEM launched the 2018 version of its DK92A black silicon PERC conductive silver paste product, compatible with diamond wire/black silicon BSF cells, the 2018 version of the DK92B mono PERC conductive silver paste product, compatible with mono BSF cells, and also the DK92K double-sided AlOx passivated PERC conductive silver paste, upgraded to the second generation of the product first launched in October 2017, ahead of other silver paste suppliers  in the industry. ‘We hope to continue to help our customers enhance their competitiveness through continuously innovated products in the ever changing industry technology road map’, said Dr Shi.

Costs considerations

In terms of cost reduction, conductive paste has made a great contribution in recent years. Taking the conventional BSF cell as an example, the contribution to the efficiency optimization of the front-side silver paste has exceeded 0.1% each year and, combined with the integrated optimization of texturing, diffusion, coating and metallization, it could reach even more than 0.2% per year, which does not include the leaping effect brought about by black silicon, PERC, bifacial cells and other new processes and technologies.

Dr. Shi noted: “DKEM is not only focusing on metallization at the cell level, but we also think more about an integrated collaborative innovation metallization solution. We are trying to break the boundaries between cell metallization and module interconnection, and we are actively exploring this integrated development concept with our customers.

At present, at the cell level, we have optimized both efficiency and cost for tier one customers by using dual printing technology. Our specially designed DK92B paste for fingers has better contact ability to match higher square resistance and can also be compatible with advanced screen technologies to realize fine-line with good aspect ratio, thereby achieving a higher cell conversion efficiency; meanwhile, our customized DK81 low solid content silver paste for busbars can maintain good reliability while saving on the cost of metallization. On further consideration, we also introduced this metallization concept to MBB and shingled modules, which greatly optimized the yield of soldering for MBB modules and largely reduced the metallization cost for shingled modules. All of these innovations have been applied to mass production in tier one cell/module makers.

On the other hand, regarding the much discussed question of silver consumption, DKEM’s DK92 silver paste system has a lower silver consumption per wafer compared to any other pastes in the industry; this is due to the targeted design of our formulation, allowing us to achieve higher conversion efficiency with a lower wet silver consumption. In addition, we actively provide customers with recommendations and consulting services on screen parameters and metallization patterns, to help them improve efficiency while reducing the consumption of silver pastes. At the same time, for customers with more options, we will cooperate on the development of all-in-one metallization solutions, such as dual printing, on the interconnection of advanced modules to achieve even lower metallizaiton costs with synergy between advanced cell and module technologies.

DKEM has already forged stable business relationships with seven out of the industry’s top ten mainstream PV cell and module manufacturers. The areas of cooperation cover from conventional diamond wire, black silicon, black silicon PERC, mono PERC, PERC+SE, N type cells, TOPCON and other cell metallization technologies, to multi busbar and shingled module interconnection technologies, and double printing, dual printing, advanced screen and other advanced printing technologies, as well as low temperature firing, PID and other cell related technologies.”

Dr. Shi continued: “Recently, an important partner has achieved a world record of high efficiency in mono PERC shingled modules of 420W+, of which the DK92 high efficiency conductive silver paste, co-developed by us, has played an important role in metallization. The DK92 conductive silver paste broke the boundary between cell metallization and module interconnect on the technical level, to produce the synergistic enhancement of cell and module power and to facilitate the achievement of this world record. Our R&D team is made up of a number of Ph.D.s from the United States and Japan, and has both in-depth background of research and development and market experience in electronic materials and silver paste products. This has empowered us with a strong predominance in the development of raw materials, such as glass frits, organic vehicles, silver powders and formulation development, enabling us to quickly respond to market demands and make timely developments in a  period of rapid change for cell technologies, thus allowing us to achieve a great deal in the past year.”

“The competition in the current front-side silver paste market is very fierce. We call on those competing in this area to not forget about product/technology driven essence. We hope that the front-side silver paste industry is able to achieve a positive competitive environment; our domestic counterparts especially should jointly shape the quality and reputation of China’s front-side silver pastes,” Dr. Shi concluded.

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Solar manufacturing capacity expansion announcements in Q1 2018, reached 24.8GW

PV manufacturing capacity expansion announcements in the first quarter of 2018 continued to follow the strong trend set in the fourth quarter of 2017. The quarter also represented a revival in thin-film expansion plans as well as the return of PV module assembly outpacing solar cell announcements. Also notable was the return of India and the US as major destinations for new capacity plans.

January review

Total expansion announcements were 11,450MW, down from 16,100MW in December 2017 and down from 20,800MW in November 2017. However, January 2018 was responsible for setting a new ‘mini’ record for capacity expansion announcements, compared to other January months, since the beginning of 2014. 

The majority of expansion plans came from the PV module assembly segment, which topped 8,600MW. Only one month (November 2015) had exceeded this figure when 11,180MW of module assembly plans were announced. 

Solar cell expansion plans in January 2018 were 2,850MW, down significantly from 7,350MW in the previous month and down substantially from 20,000MW announced in November 2017, which set a new record for monthly solar cell expansion announcements. 

Therefore it should be a surprise that after just two months when a total of 27,000MW of new cell capacity plans had been announced, January would experience further declines. In fact, 2017 stands out for breaking the trend since 2014 that solar cell expansion plans closely tracked those of module assembly. However, solar cell expansion in 2017 accounted for more than 65% of the total. 

Notable announcements included LONGi Green Energy Technology and newly created UREC, a joint venture consolidation of Taiwan-based PV manufacturers Gintech Energy, Solartech Energy, Neo Solar Power. 

As a ‘Silicon Module Super League’ (SMSL) member, we will cover LONGi later in the SMSL review but the company accounted for 5,000MW of module assembly expansion plans in January in China and a further 1,000MW of cell and module plans in India. 

Soon after its formation, UREC was cited in media reports as being interested in establishing cell and module manufacturing operations in the US, post the Section 201 trade case, as high tariffs were imposed. Some reports indicated a 500MW to 1,000MW nameplate capacity that could be implemented in phases. 

Other notable plans included the possible expansion at Photowatt, a subsidiary of EDF Energies Nouvelles in France to meet the growing French Government tenders and in-house projects with effectively a 450MW module assembly expansion using mono-cast wafers and possibly a JV involvement from SMSL member, Canadian Solar. 

Leading SMSL JinkoSolar also confirmed plans to build a highly automated module assembly plant in Jacksonville, Florida, USA, post the Section 201 trade case.

February review

The month of February was in total contrast to the previous month as only a combined total of 850MW of new expansion plans were announced. 

Only 500MW of solar cell expansions were announced coupled to only 350MW of module assembly. 

Notable was a proposed 150MW module assembly expansion at Recom-Sillia in France and plans by Mission Solar in San Antonio, Texas, USA to double module assembly capacity to 400MW, which was after the Section 201 trade case tariff decision. 

Although February announcements did not top 1,000MW, 2017 was notable for having two months (August and September) when announcements did not reach 1,000MW. 

March review

After the collapse in announcements in February, March bounced back stronger than January, accounting for a combined total of 12,570MW of new cell, module assembly and thin-film expansion plans. 

Indeed, March 2018 was the second highest for announcements since 2014, the highest March so far record was in 2016 (13,325MW). 

Once again module assembly announcements led the way, totalling 6,620MW, compared to 3,810MW of solar cell expansion plans. 

However, thin film module expansions, primarily CIGS (Copper-Indium-Gallium-Selenide) from Hanergy Thin film Power Group, totalled 2,140MW. 

Hanergy would seem to have created a completely new business model in 2017 that provides new industrial parks a selection of portfolio of a-Si, CIGS, GaAs and c-Si heterojunction (HJ) turnkey production lines to provide local government bodies access to solar technology and attract other hi-tech companies to new industrial parks.

The company announced for the first time in its 2017 annual report, issued at the end of March that it had already secured contracts from three newly formed industrial park project companies in Mianyang Sichuan, Datong Shanxi and Zibo Shandong, who had purchased thin-film production lines from the company valued at approximately RMB 11.3 billion (US$1.79 billion). 

Unrelated to the industrial park business model, Hanergy also highlighted a contract signed in October 2017 with Huafengyuan (Chengdu) New Energy Technology Co.,Ltd., for the purchase of 600MW of nameplate capacity of automated and integrated ‘High Efficiency Silicon heterojunction (SHJ) solar cell’ production lines and technology transfer, valued at RMB 1,39 billion (US$222.5 million) and RMB 175.9 million (US$27.9 million), respectively.

Hanergy TF noted that it had delivered the equipment for the first 120MW production line during 2017, with an advance from the customer of US$4.05 million. Total equipment orders outlined in its annual reported reached 2,740MW. 

India was also notable for around 28 dedicated PV module assembly firms planning small-scale expansions that reached around 4,000MW, while several cell and module producers planned a total of over 200MW of cell expansions. 

Leading SMSL JinkoSolar also provided expansion plan updates totalling 2,500MW in March on top of the 400MW module assembly plans for the US, which were announced in January, 2018. 

Quarterly review

The first quarter of 2018 is almost identical to the first quarter of 2017. Combined capacity expansion announcements reached 24,879MW, compared to 24,745MW in the first quarter of 2017. 

However, the Q1 2018 breakout by segment is more biased to module assembly expansion plans, while the Q1 2017 bias was towards solar cell expansions. 

A key trend consistent from the beginning of 2014 has been that the first quarter of each year has been strong for expansion plans and in the last three years exceeded or came close to reaching total combined announcements of 25,000MW. 

In Q1 2018, module assembly capacity expansion plans topped 15,570MW, the second highest on record, only exceeded in the first quarter of 2016 when plans announced topped 16,000MW. 

Thin film activity increased quarter-on-quarter, due solely to Hanergy and totalled 2,140MW in the quarter, up from 1,200MW in Q4 2017. 

Geographical review

On geographical basis, Q1 2018 replicated the return of China as the number destination for new capacity expansion announcements seen in 2017. China accounted for a combined segment total of 14,240MW in Q1 2018, or 61% of the total. China accounted for over 71,000MW in 2017, or 73% of the combined segment total.  

However, Q1 2018 saw the re-emergence of India as the second largest destination for planned expansions. India accounted for 6,210MW in the quarter, or 27% of the combined segment total.  

As already noted, plans from domestic module assembly companies totalling around 4,000MW were a key driver, while China-based LONGi announced 1,000MW of both solar cell and module assembly plants to be built in the country. 

The resurgence of India is believed to be driven by threats of anti-dumping duties in India as well as momentum building, despite challenges in the downstream utility-scale sector. Indeed, with the US imposing further anti-dumping duties in early 2018, India becomes even more important to PV manufacturers located in China. 

As previously noted in these reports, PV manufacturing capacity expansion announcements in India have proved significantly difficult to translate into ‘effective’ capacity. 

In 2014, expansion plans totalling over 1,400MW were announced for India, which increased significantly in 2015 to 7,850MW, peaking at just over 17,000MW in 2016. Planned expansions in India collapsed to only 2,790MW in 2017. 

In total, planned expansions in India since 2014 to the end of 2017 had reached over 29,000MW.

In contrast, the total of planned expansions in India that have translated into effective new capacity since the beginning of 2014 is around 4,500MW, which includes around 1,700MW of new effective cell capacity and around 2,750MW of new effective module assembly capacity. 

However, adding to the challenges in developing effective new capacity in India are the low utilisation rates of existing manufacturing facilities.

SMSL update

Typically, in the first quarter, the majority of SMSL members (JinkoSolar, Trina Solar, Canadian Solar, JA Solar, Hanwha Q CELLS, LONGi Group, GCL Group), provide capacity expansion updates when releasing fourth quarter and full-year financial results.  

However, at the time of this report only JinkoSolar, Canadian Solar, Hanwha Q CELLS and LONGi Group have provided updates. Since going private, Trina Solar has not provided updated information on capacity expansion plans.


Leading SMSL member JinkoSolar is planning further capacity expansions across wafer, cell and module assembly in 2018, including a module assembly plant in the US, after strong capital expenditures in 2017 that totalled US$480 million.

The SMSL reported that in-house wafer capacity went from 5GW in 2016 to 8GW in 2017, a 3GW increase, year-on-year, while solar cell capacity increased by 1GW in 2017, reaching 5GW. 

Module assembly capacity was said to have increased from 6.5GW in 2016 to 8GW in 2017, a 1.5GW increase, year-on-year. 

In 2018, JinkoSolar has set plans to add 1GW of in-house wafer capacity in the first quarter, bringing total nameplate capacity to 9GW. By the end of the year a further 500MW expansion of wafer capacity is expected. 

The company is also adding a further 1GW of solar cell capacity through the year, bringing in-house nameplate capacity to 6GW by year-end, while in-house module assembly capacity is being expanded by a further 1.5GW in 2018. This includes a 500MW increase in the first quarter of 2018 and therefore a further 1GW by year-end. Total module capacity is therefore expected to reach 10GW in 2018.

The difference between 2017 and 2018 expansions, apart from a slowdown in wafer capacity expansion plans, is the establishment of a 400MW module assembly plant in Florida. 

Canadian Solar

Third ranked SMSL, Canadian Solar surprised by announcing a slowdown in capacity expansions and lower nameplate capacity plans than given in late 2017. Having adjusted manufacturing capacity expansions throughout 2017, Canadian Solar continued to tweak plans for 2018.

The SMSL noted that its wafer manufacturing capacity at the end of 2017 stood at 5.0GW, a 3GW increase from 2016. However, the company has not announced new wafer capacity expansions for 2018, keeping capacity as 5GW. 

Solar cell manufacturing capacity stood at 5.45 GW at the end of 2017, up from 2.44GW in 2016, in-line with previous upwardly revised guidance.

However, Canadian Solar has revised its cell capacity expansion plans again, noting that it expected nameplate cell capacity to reach 5.6GW by mid-2018, compared to 6.20GW in its previous update. The SMSL also noted that cell capacity at the end of 2018 was expected to reach 6.35GW, compared to previous guidance of reaching 6.95GW. 

A similar adjustment has been made to in-house module assembly capacity expansion plans. The SMSL noted module capacity reached 8.11GW by the end of 2017, up from 6.17GW in 2016. The company said that module nameplate capacity was expected to reach 8.31GW by mid-2018, compared to its last update of reaching 9.06GW in that time frame. 

Total module assembly capacity by the end of 2018 is targeted at 9.81GW, compared to 10.31GW guidance, previously given. Canadian Solar has not issued its annual report and therefore has yet to disclose capex figures for 2017. 

Canadian Solar’s management noted that it had recently experienced under-utilization rates at its module assembly plant in Canada and its manufacturing plant in South East Asia, due to the Section 201 tariff decisions by the US government.

Hanwha Q CELLS

The fifth ranked SMSL, Hanwha Q CELLS had already restricted capital expenditure throughout 2017, all except for a the JV manufacturing plant in Turkey planned in response to building a 1.3GW (DC) PV power plant in the country which is expected to be operational in 2021. 

The company had previously guided capital expenditures in 2017 to be around US$50 million, which would be allocated to manufacturing technology upgrades and certain R&D related expenditures. However, the SMSL’s capex in 2017 was US$66.1 million, while R&D expenditure was down 51.2% to US$24 million, compared to US$49.2 million in 2016. 

The SMSL had an in-house name plate capacity of 4,300MW for solar cells and modules at the end of 2017, unchanged from the previous year.  

In 2018, Hanwha Q CELLS expects a slight increase in capex, due to initial spending on its new integrated manufacturing operations in Turkey. The company guided capex of US$90 million in 2018 and an allocation of around US$37 million to the new plant in Turkey. 

In early April, so technically outside the scope of this report, the SMSL reported a fourth quarter loss of US$50.5 million, primarily attributed to the asset write down of its entire wafering operations, which were based at dedicated facilities in Lianyungang, Jiangsu Province, China. 

The company had multicrystalline ingot nameplate capacity of 1,550MW and 950MW of multicrystalline wafer capacity. The SMSL cited that the wafering operations were unprofitable as well being impacted by a downward trend in wafer prices.

However, the JV in Turkey requires Hanwha Q CELLS to establish wafering operations not just solar cell and module assembly to comply with the downstream project tender win. 

LONGi Group

Leading integrated high-efficiency monocrystalline module manufacturer and seventh ranked SMSL member LONGi Green Energy Technology via is subsidiary LONGi Solar (cell/module) manufacturer had executed on an aggressive capacity expansion strategy in 2017. 

Mono wafer capacity went from 7,500MW in 2016 to 12,000MW by the end of 2017, a 60% increase, year-on-year. Mono solar cell capacity went from 2,500MW in 2016 to 5,000MW by the end of 2017, a 100% increase, compared to the prior year. 

However, module assembly capacity increased at a relatively lower pace, going from 5,000MW to 6,500MW by the end of 2017, a 30% increase, year-on-year. 

The company announced in Q1 2018 that mono wafer capacity would be expanded to 28,000MW by the end of 2018, more than a 133% increase over the previous year. 

Although solar cell capacity is expected to remain at 5,000MW, LONGi will expand mono module assembly to 8,000MW by the end of 2018, a 60% increase, year-on-year. 

However, separate to the expansion cited, LONGi Group announced in the first quarter of 2018 that it would invest US$309 million, including around US$240 million in constructing a new facility in Andhra Pradesh, India, with an initial nameplate capacity of 1,000MW of monocrystalline solar cells and expand its mothballed 500MW module assembly plant (previously announced) to 1GW. 

The new solar cell facility is expected to be operational in January 2020, while the expanded module assembly plant plans are expected to be completed and production ramp occur by the end of August 2019.


The capacity expansion announcements in the first quarter of 2018 remained strong, driven primarily by China and India on the back of domestic downstream demand. The US benefited from Section 201 tariffs, but only in respect to module assembly expansions and relatively small new assembly plant plans from the leading SMSL. 

A significant increase in thin-film expansion plans, specifically in China, driven by one company, Hanergy, provided a surprise revival, notably for CIGS technology. 

The return of module assembly announcements that far outpaced those of dedicated solar cell expansion plans was a key highlight. 

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Mono vs Multi, N-type vs P-Type: Outlooks from PV CellTech 2018

PV CellTech 2018 saw Chief Technology Officers and senior executives from the world’s top solar cell manufacturers and equipment suppliers give key indications of which cell technologies will be driving the industry in the coming years.

This blog includes some of the hunches and opinions gathered from delegates over the two days in Penang, Malaysia. The newest and highest efficiency cell technologies are on the rise, but we also heard of stalwart multi-crystalline silicon technologies managing to scrape back the efficiency gaps with their own innovations. Timing will be critical in terms of which technologies will take off over the next two years.

Most delegates were cautious in their responses and when it came to certain technology comparisons they felt that it was just too soon to predict, even in an industry that has started moving at pace.

Kicking off the conference, Finlay Colville, head of market research, PV Tech and Solar Media, said that the US import tariffs resulting from Section 201 were far from the main global issue today – adding: “Everything is about signs over the next few years of there being a slow down in investment going into manufacturing in China; that is literally the single biggest, most important thing for the whole solar industry. 

“Also the ability of the downstream channels to actually install all these modules.”

Despite the formidable rise of monocrystalline cell technology, changes and developments in multi-crystalline technology have allowed it to continue prevailing in the last two years, while also keeping manufacturing capacity at the necessary levels to reach the major industry milestone of 100GW in a year, said Colville.

The Mono vs Multi debate

A question the whole industry still wants to know is which of mono or multi will dominate over the next 3-5 years.

It’s not going to be as clear cut,” said Gordon Deans, founder and COO, Aurora Solar Technologies. “There’s advantages to both technologies and what you can see from people talking this year at CellTech and also last year is that sometimes you’ll get somebody saying multi is the clear winner for them and other people will say mono is the clear winner for them.

“It depends what you are trying to achieve and what your cost factors are in your sourcing of materials and your supply chain and your production as well. There’s not one single answer, it’s how does your particular situation drive what your decisions are – that’s what matters.”

This balanced view was echoed by Guangyao Jin, chief scientist, DuPont Photovoltaic & Advanced Materials, who said: “We believe both multi and mono have their own advantages. The cost of mono wafer has trended down while multi has tried very hard to increase efficiency and power output. They will coexist for quite a long period of time.”

Closing gaps

Such a question can’t be asked without hearing from the heavyweights in mono technology LONGi Green Energy Technology. Xie Tian, the firm’s director of Wafer Quality Management said that there was a very big wafer price gap between multi and mono last year, mostly due to the mono wafer shortage, but the price gap between multi and mono is consistently becoming smaller and smaller.

Pierre Verlinden, who until recently was the long-standing chief scientist of Silicon Module Super League (SMSL) member, Trina Solar, said that, historically, multi has clearly dominated. However, despite it being able to regain some interest back from the mono surge due to the conversion of the technology from Al-BSF to PERC, there is still a greater interest in mono because “the best benefits” come from mono. Nonetheless, the industry has often demonstrated new efficiencies with mono technology only for the developments to be transferred back to multi to reduce cost and Verlinden believes this trend will continue.

He said: “Today we make high performance multi wafers that are almost as good as Cz wafers. […] If you focus on impurities you can improve the lifetime of your multi-crystalline wafers and then get roughly about the same performance as you get in mono-crystalline Cz technology.”

Finlay Colville introduced GCL-Poly, which has been one of the biggest drivers of multi on the wafer side in the last 3-4 years, along with Canadian Solar, one of the biggest proponents of multi cell manufacturing – a unique company that has its arm in every part of the value chain from cell manufacturing all the way to project development and EPC activities. Colville said together, both firms had been key to keeping multi competitive and retaining its market share.

Guoqiang Xing, SVP and CTO, Canadian Solar, said the cost of multi-PERC technology is reducing along with the inception of high performance multi technologies. More importantly he said his firm had taken multi-PERC into mass production at the Gigawatt level last year – adding: “we have a long way to go but I think multi will stay competitive for a long time to come.”

Meanwhile, Yuepeng Wan, CTO, GCL-Poly said that for multi to keep its market dominance it was “very critical” that it is able to offer higher output modules so that the end consumer has a choice of level of output.

Breaking even

However, PV Tech heard one executive suggest that the multi-crystalline business case has not shortage of challenges to remain competitive. Efficiency gains are increasing much faster for mono than multi, combined with decreasing manufacturing step costs for mono wafers, and there are some markets where mono-PERC modules are now slightly cheaper than Al-BSF modules. Although, this is not the case in markets with high costs of capital, such as Turkey and India, the executive said.

Indeed, Basma Amezian, business developer, Singapore Solar Exchange, looking at manufacturing break-even price/cost boundaries, said: “Taking as a reference absolute best-in-class processing costs in the industry, which would be relevant for the multi-gigawatt China-based factories, we can see that multi cell makers struggle to make profits. On the other hand, for mono we consider that there is a more or less good margin between the processing costs and the break-even boundaries.

“Of course it will depend on each company, processing costs and strategies and a lot of different variables, but if the assumptions are correct we can see here that the multi cell makers made loses in the first quarter and the fourth quarter of 2017, they barely broke even in Q3 and they only made a one-digit profit in Q2.

“For mono cell makers, however, we consider their margins were between 8 and 15% and even on their lowest price level in Q1 2018, their margin was the lowest of the year but also the maximum that the multi cell makers made.”

The p-type vs n-type debate

N-type technology is on most people’s radar today and the industry is watching closely for any hints at whether it will come to trump p-type technology or co-exist happily over the next decade should the industry reach Terawatt production levels.

It’s worth nothing that another of the major questions at CellTech was ‘What happens after PERC? – Particularly as we heard several times that PERC is set to become dominant in the market as early is this year. This question is certainly partly tied up in the n versus p-type debate going forward.

Super Top Runner

China’s ‘Super Top Runner’ programme which targets the highest efficiency technologies is seen as a key enabler for technologies using n-type and heterojunction, but Finlay Colvile said the 1.5GW put aside for this – in a market that can do 65GW – is still very small, allowing more traditional cell technologies to continue to prosper.

Canadian Solar’s Guoqiang Xing said that for the Super Top Runner programme, players only have to score on the technology rather than the levelised cost of Electricity (LCOE), which is driving the production in newer technologies.

As a side note, Xing said that he had expected diamond wire sawing (DWS) to have a 70% market share in 2019, but instead it is likely to reach 100% already this year. “It’s like a tornado,” he said. 

One wonders if any specific cell architectures could also become tornados in their own right.

DuPont’s Jin said that due to the super Top Runner programs driven by China, his firm expects significant growth of n-type passivated contact technology in the coming few years. However, he said the question of whether it will become mainstream to replace p-type position in the market today, will be “highly subject to the total cost of ownership improvement throughout the whole value chain engagement”.

Omid Shojaei, CEO, INDEOTec said he could not see much limitation in terms of people switching between p-type and n-type, assuming there is enough supply of mono wafers.


Shojaei added: “If we talk about heterojunction – of course we can do it with both p-mono and n-mono. The results are better with the n-mono so there is probably something like 1% absolute efficiency that are better with the n-types so I would say that if heterojunction picks up, this will also increase the share of n-type versus p-type mono but its not an easy question.”

He said there are a lot of new players in heterojunction, with more than 30 labs just working on its next generation, adding that he sees the HJT market rising from 2GW to 22GW in the next three years.

He said Japan remains the best market for the moment led by Kaneka and Panasonic, but there are no specific plans to expand. So to reach that 22GW, there will be roughly 2GW in Korea, 5GW in the rest of the world and the rest made up by China, which is clearly the biggest investor today in the HJT market.

Shojaei had said that PERC can get to around 21-22% maximum on the industrial level, but this was an area of contention at the conference.

Holger Neuhaus, director innovation and Technology, SolarWorld Industries, later claimed that PERC would reach >24% in industrial production. While Martin Green, of the University of New South Wales said PERC should see 23.6% in production in the next 2-3 years.

Is n-type really ‘better’?

Pierre Verlinden said that n-type is a “wonderful material” because it’s less sensitive to iron impurities than p-type. However, he noted that if such metallic impurities were removed from the equation in wafers – if the iron concentration is reduced – then theoretically p-type efficiency would be better than n-type.

He added: “So there is no reason technically why we should go switching to n-type if we stay with the standard PERC technology.”

P-type multi still dominates manufacturing, he claimed, but n-type is the preferred choice with passivated contact technology.

Gunter Erfurt, CTO, Meyer Burger, said: “This is too early to say. When you look at the highest efficiency cells so far for PERC, these were p-type. It started with the initial Martin Green [UNSW] cell – this was a p-type above 24.6 or 25% and now with the p-PERC cells that ISFH presented one month back it’s another proof that it is a false statement when people say n is by definition better than p. This is not true, it’s all about managing the silicon bulk quality to get it to a level where it’s allowing for higher efficiencies.

“Next year, I think 2019/20, the two dominating gallium doping patent families are expiring after 20 years – Shin-Etsu and Kyocera. I believe this will be the moment when people are getting rid of boron and putting gallium because all the highly efficient PERC cells were all gallium-doped. You get very nice lifetimes, very little degradation only and there are more tricks and other ideas to use other doping instead of boron so I would say for the time being this is an open question.”

“At the end of the day it’s all about balancing the cost structure and if n is unable to reach the yields to make it a profitable business, it will not make the breakthrough.”

Hyun Jung Park, research fellow, Solar R&D Laboratory, LG Electronics, said the cell efficiency gap between both technologies had been reducing, but LG has been developing n-PERT, TOPcon and HJT cells to maintain the gap between p and n-type. However, she noted that cost is still the weakness for n-type as it has higher wafer material costs than p-type wafers.

Nevertheless, LONGi’s Tian said he expects the n-type market to become bigger and bigger, which will make the cost difference between p and n smaller.

Wei Shan, CTO, JA Solar on the other hand said that p-type PERC will remain the prevailing technology for the next few years and said it was “a tall ask” to challenge that in terms of cost effective mass production of alternatives.  Nevertheless, he said issues such as cost and yield would gradually be resolved and eventually n-type will take off.

Further reading on the n-versus-p debate

Commenting shortly after PV CellTech 2018, Finlay Colville added that the growth of the solar industry, driven by China in 2016 and 2017, had opened the door for a wide range of high-efficiency platforms across both n-type and p-type cell technologies.

“In many cases, especially in China, the technologies are not in direct competition with one another. And often, deployment in China is coming from secondary factors, such as parent company involvement in project development and EPC activities, or carve-outs for cell or module efficiency levels. This is hiding a genuine comparison based on operating costs and energy yields.”

“But it is clear that the n-type landscape is moving fast, and the technical success of LG Electronics has ushered in a new wave of companies seeking to make modules where the key differentiation today is based on cell efficiency, with these companies yet to fully address the issues yet to come when operating factories profitably at the multi-gigawatt level.”

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PV CellTech to explain technologies and threat-levels from 2018 China capex

The third PV CellTech event takes place in Penang, Malaysia in just two weeks from now, on 13-14 March 2018. The schedule of speakers and companies lined up this year is set to be both fascinating to hear, and essential to dissect, when looking at exactly how the PV industry will evolve beyond the 100GW of solar cells produced in 2017.

Already firmly established as a must-attend event in the PV calendar, to understand exactly what is happening with real-world GW-level mass production of solar cells, PV CellTech 2018 expands on the success of the past two years, sees many of the box-office technology-experts returning to speak, and is supplemented with new topics and networking activities.

This article discusses some of the main attractions of the event next month, discusses the background for the topics featured during the two days, and highlights some of the key takeaways expected from the event.

Stand-out speakers and topics at CellTech 2018

The final agenda for PV CellTech 2018 can be viewed here and downloaded at the event website. Speakers and topics for PV CellTech are all by invite only, and all speakers shown are confirmed to feature in Penang next month, and by all accounts, raring to get on the stage!

The event runs for two days, with a technology-driven feast of topics and speakers, chosen specifically to provide all attendees with the facts and figures needed to piece together which PV technologies are gaining market-share, where the competitive threat is coming from today, and what the impact will be from the 20GW-plus of new mono pullers being added in China this year.

PV CellTech 2018 will feature also dedicated sessions on cell profitability and the prospects for a return to manufacturing back to Europe and North America. Not to mention the near-term outlook for Southeast Asia, and in particular Vietnam and India, owing to different trade-related factors currently impacting the industry.

But maybe the must-attend session will be reserved for late morning on Day 2, called simply: The Future of Solar Cell Manufacturing. This mega-session features keynote talks from Martin Green (UNSW), Pierre Verlinden, and Andreas Bett (Fraunhofer ISE).

The afternoon of Day 2 includes a special session on kerfless/direct-wafering, with the technology firmly on the roadmap options of leading producers today. In fact, the recent declines in polysilicon g/W metrics (to 3.9g/W blended exiting 2018), and the full migration to diamond wire saws going into 2019, are now forcing thoughts on how wafer processing costs can make the next step-wise change downward.

Closing off the talks over the 2 days will, once again at PV CellTech, be the unveiling of the latest annual ITRPV roadmap, from its mastermind Markus Fischer. Unquestionably, PV CellTech has quickly become the perfect forum to see how the ITRPV projections match what the major cell producers are planning to do in the near- to mid-term.

Multi back on the centre stage

The solar industry has seen a massive push on mono over the past 2-3 years, and this has been key to the efficiency growth at Chinese manufacturers and pushing rear-passivated cells into the mainstream. But yet, China production and local deployment has kept multi dominant until now, and has driven multi proponents to perform upgrades that had been on the backburner for years.

Recognising this, PV CellTech will put multi back on the centre stage, with the opening talks from GCL, Canadian Solar and UNSW explaining why multi remains competitive today, in addition to the roadmap being pursued in order to ensure that multi will be a major technology-option in the industry beyond 2020.

Explaining the n-type revival

Coverage of n-type manufacturing at the first two PV CellTech events largely focused on the established technologies developed by SunPower and Sanyo (now Panasonic), complemented by leading stakeholders that were pushing growth in this segment.

PV CellTech 2018 moves commercial n-type activity and coverage to an altogether different level.

From a personal standpoint, I have been attending PV workshops, conferences and exhibitions for 15 years, and I could probably write a book about the aspirations of literally hundreds of n-type pitches. More often than not, the rhetoric of moving effortlessly from Al-BSF p-multi cells to n-type HJT-IBC hybrid production was nothing more than a pipe-dream.

This all changed during 2017, with China and various European (and Russia) related initiatives breathing life into n-type cell production, in a way that the industry has not seen before.

Of all the n-type variants on offer, most of the attention is focusing on heterojunction (HJT) and trying to replicate Sanyo’s initial success, but with capex at a fraction of the cost, the use of standardized wafers, and a production cost structure that merits continued factory operations.

PV CellTech will feature talks from some of the main Chinese companies, set to ramp GW-level of n-type capacity during 2018, including Jolywood and Jinergy.
However, the stand-out talk from all n-type sessions at PV CellTech 2018 could possibly be from LG Electronics.

LG has been diligently establishing in-house know-how and GW-level cell/module manufacturing in South Korea for the better part of a decade, and in recent years has become the second major n-type module supplier to the market, after SunPower.

It is great for PV CellTech that LG is using the event to convey its in-house R&D expertise, and the talk will certainly be on the must-attend list for many of the attendees in the room.

Beyond mono-PERC: and what-next?

We certainly seem to be approaching key decisions in cell manufacturing, that will move performance to new levels, once all modules are produced with rear passivation layers, and all wafers are produced using diamond wire saws.

Indeed, we are almost at the point where bifacial performance is accepted as an ongoing upgrade route that will be offered by all manufacturers.

Therefore, we return to some of the real next-stage upgrade routes, and which of these will be adopted by the mainstream cell/module suppliers. This includes moving to thinner wafers (as surely the major and outstanding route for the industry to move towards to make major inroads into the silicon cost element), and finally looking closely at kerfless wafering.

Cell-to-module interconnections represents another massive opportunity to reduce silver consumption, and maximize cell efficiencies at the module level.
What-next-after-PERC has been the question many industry activists have been seeking the answer to for the past few years, but perhaps now is the correct time to focus on this, with plenty of other options for cell makers to focus on recently.

It is clear that technology roadmaps stretching out 5 years from now will not be just about PERC, bifaciality and diamond-wires: understanding the next technology upgrade routes is critical today.

Perhaps the industry has now reached the point where technology upgrades will come at a frantic pace, with everyone having to make constant process flow changes to stay competitive both with panel power offerings and cost structures from poly to module.

We could indeed be just at the starting point, with PERC being the catalyst for change that forces new tool deployment at levels historically reserved for semiconductor and displays.

Networking time enhanced with addition of new 100GW Party

In looking at the final PV CellTech 2018 agenda, the two days of talks are literally packed with quality talks one after another, with virtually all attendees again expected to be gripped to their seats from 9am on day-one to 6pm on day-two.

Interestingly, after the past two PV CellTech meetings, there were always two big asks from the attendees to help us improve the future events: more talks, and more networking time!

Therefore, this year we have tried to do both! The result was to add on a second evening event, open to all conference delegates, but add a special twist and allure to the occasion.

Once the final talk is completed at 6pm on day-two, we go straight into the 100GW Party, to celebrate 100GW of solar cell production in 2017.

The event is co-hosted by PV-Tech and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and could well be the technology-networking highlight of 2018.

Between now and the event on 14 March 2018, I have the enviable task of compiling a PV-manufacturing highlights talk (from 1GW to 100GW of solar cell production), in addition to conjuring up a PV-manufacturing quiz, to see what ‘team’ knows most about the solar industry!

How to get involved with PV CellTech 2018

PV CellTech is expected to be sold-out again, for the third year in a row, when the first talk starts at 9am on 13 March. Right now, there are still a few places available at the event to attend. Registration can be done online quickly through the links at the PV CellTech 2018 website here.

For those already lined up to speak and attend, PV-Tech looks forward to seeing you all soon!

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PV capex to exceed US$10 billion in 2018, with 25% growth forecast

PV capital expenditure (capex) in 2018, covering investments into ingot, wafer, cell and module capacity, will grow by almost 25% compared to 2017, passing through the US$10 billion mark, returning to levels last seen back in 2010 and 2011 when investments in turn-key thin-film fabs were a key contributor.

2018 capex will represent a 7-year high for the industry, and 4 times the amount of PV capex seen back in 2013, when the industry passed through the trough of the previous downturn cycle, and will be the fifth consecutive year of spending growth.

Capex this year is being driven mainly by Chinese-based investments across the entire c-Si value-chain, with multi-GW (5-20 GW) expansion plans well underway from leading PV manufacturers.

With the exception of First Solar (and its thin-film capex), the rest of the PV industry outside China is largely in the noise, often playing with loose change to sustain loss-making operations.

If you thought Chinese investments were calling the shots in the PV industry until now, just wait until the end of 2018!

The figure below shows PV capex over a 10 year period going back to 2007. This clearly reveals that the industry is well into its second major upturn in capex, with peak annual investment levels edging towards the $10 billion figure that characterized the halcyon days of 2010 and 2011, when equipment suppliers would routinely tout having billion-dollar-backlogs.

Several factors are fuelling annual capex growth in 2018 at the 25% mark.

Module supply continues to expand at unprecedented rates, with signs that 2018 will comfortably hit or exceed 120GW (despite the typical doom-and-gloom seen by many industry observers at the start of 2018, all of whom have been getting market forecasts wrong for years now).

Technology evolution is moving faster than before, with changes in wafer and cell manufacturing requiring significant upgrade spending, in addition to the new capacity being installed.

However, Chinese money rules today in the PV industry, and there are no signs that the appetite for investment into domestic companies will see a slowdown this year.

In fact, if anything, the expansions and outlays just get more ambitious every year, with companies that were modest GW-level cell and module makers just a couple of years ago, now building 3-5 GW cell and module factories with investments at US$500-1000 million each. And then of course, we have the multi-billion-dollar ingot pulling/cutting deluge in China that is just going through its first phase!

The only thing stopping oversupply is ramping new facilities and equipment – something many people forget to factor in when looking at supply to the market and relative demand levels.

Another leading contributor to 2018 PV capex is coming from the n-type capacity being added in China this year. From a technology disruption standpoint, this is where all the action is right now. Can they: can’t they make heterojunction work at the multi-GW level with a cost structure aligned with p-type mono market supply?

The question is somewhat irrelevant right now. Add in n-PERT and other n-type variants seeing investments within China, and there is enough for domestic and overseas tool suppliers to get engrossed in. The only problem arises here of course if backlogs become dominated by single customers trying to move from zero-to-hero, with precious little in-house knowledge to justify ramping p-multi lines for the first time, far less moving to heterojunction with new tool suppliers from the off!

All eyes on PV CellTech 2018 as the barometer for n-type threat

The PV CellTech 2018 event takes place on 13-14 March 2018, in Penang, Malaysia. Going into its third year, the event has not seen so much priority on n-type before.

Anyone looking to find out exactly what is going to happen in 2018 (and beyond) for n-type capacity, and indeed which companies are driving the US$10 billion capex levels this year, should definitely attend.

The event will also explain why – despite the billions going into mono capacity – p-type multi still ruled in the industry during 2017. And now with a session all to itself, the burning question for many: What-next-after-PERC!

More details on how to attend PV CellTech 2018 can be found here.

With two evening networking activities and the 100GW Party to take in, the event is likely to retain its status as the must-attend manufacturing meeting of the year.

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