Can solar panel technology change before 2015?

Solar photovoltaic technology evolved significantly from 2010-13 but the likelihood for another great change is still a way off.


Around about this time each year, we have a closer look at the PV technologies that were used to make all the solar panels in 2013 that ended up being shipped through downstream channels.

This is done by analysing the exact split of production across all the different c-Si process flow types, substrate types for every c-Si manufacturer, and similarly for all the thin-film options (which is almost every thin-film maker being treated as a one-off). The data source used here is the PV fab database within the latest release of the NPD Solarbuzz PV Equipment Quarterly report last week.

The output is normally a pie chart plot of annual production, split up into various categories that try to show what is different compared to the prior 12-month period. Here is a link to the blog in from last year, What’s Next for PV Technology in 2013. This year, we decided to take a slightly different look at PV technology.

Instead of looking at the prior 12-month period, the study this time goes three years back, and compares 2013 PV technologies with 2010 technologies. It is probably somewhat academic to go back further, as the solar industry then was nothing like it is today. The choice of 2010 versus 2013 is a good one, as it offers a chance to look at a specific period where annual production was in the range 20-40GW and Asia was the dominant supplier. So the changes between 2010 and 2013 provide a glimpse into what is happening in a more mature market.

Or – put another way – with PV manufacturing having largely shifted out of Europe/Japan/US to China/Taiwan/Southeast-Asia, what has changed in terms of technology? Is there any semblance of a PV technology roadmap at play over the past three years that can explain the changes? Or are the roadmaps for the time being just wishful thinking?

The figure attached spells out the facts. This shows the market-share of various categories for 2010 and then for 2013. So, it is relatively easy to see which technologies dominate, and how each has changed market-share over the past three years.

In contrast again to previous years, we grouped all CIS/CIGS in the one category, regardless of substrate type, size, or processing. The same was done for the other thin-film types also. The other key change relates to how c-Si production was divided up.

This time, the industry’s c-Si ‘standard’ flows (p-type mono and p-type multi) are put into separate categories. (In practice, the only sub-categorisation of value within each of these would be into single and dual/double printing.) These two dominant categories include almost all the Chinese cell makers, the likes of SolarWorld and REC Solar, most of the Korean output, all of the Indian output, everything from Hanwha Q-Cells, and so on.

Together, these two mainstream c-Si categories had identical market share in 2010 and 2013, approximately 82 per cent. The difference was that the industry standard multi c-Si technology increased from 52 per cent to 64 per cent. So, in 2013, almost two out of every three solar panels installed were using a PV technology that has basically been used in production for about 15 years, give or take incremental improvements. This is perhaps the first alarm bell sounding in terms of any roadmap alignment. This also explains why most images of solar farms installed in 2013 (excluding First Solar and SunPower) show multi c-Si modules.

In fact, the shift to standard c-Si multi would have been even greater, were it not for the growth of the Japanese market in 2012 and 2013. Over the last 12 months, while the leading Chinese makers were retrofitting mono lines to multi, most of the Taiwan makers were doing the opposite because of Japan and the pull on high efficiency mono product (cells or modules).

Once the mainstream c-Si technologies are removed, there is a host of ways to segment out the remaining 18 per cent of market supply. This time around, it is divided up into eight categories. Remove the three thin-film types, and we get to five different c-Si technology options. Take out the defunct ribbon c-Si category, and we get to four challenging c-Si categories, and from a disruptive technology standpoint, this is where things start to get interesting.

These four c-Si categories often get headline attention in roadmaps. This is where we have the n-type cells, the selective emitter options, the wrap-through variants, or the cells with rear side passivation (often grouped under the topical ‘PERC’ banner these days).

When we group these four categories together (c-Si mono n-type IBC & HIT, c-Si mono p-type SE and/or Rear Passivated, c-Si mono n-type (other), and c-Si multi p-type SE and/or Rear Passivated), we can start to see some fairly interesting stuff. For the time being, let’s call this grouping ‘Advanced c-Si technology’, or any c-Si cell technology that differs in process flow/tooling compared to the mainstream technologies that meet 82 per cent end-market demand.

The 'advanced' grouping has seen production grow from 1.3GW in 2010 to 3.8GW in 2013. Market share has almost doubled also, from about 5 per cent to 9 per cent. So, on the surface, it seems plausible that there is some kind of PV technology roadmap evolution going on.

In fact, if we take out SunPower and Panasonic (Sanyo) data from the Advanced grouping, the relative growth is all the more impressive: from under 2 per cent market-share to about 5 per cent in three years.

But maybe things are not that great after all. Going from 2 per cent to 5 per cent market-share for the ‘new’ PV technologies (the Advanced grouping less SunPower and Panasonic) is slow going. This is a 1 per cent per year increase from practically zero. Moving on the same trajectory, and by 2020, this will be just 10 per cent of the solar industry. 10 per cent of end-market supply is still rather ‘niche’, albeit in a growing market.

However, this assumes long-term PV technology development in the absence of any technology buy cycles, or any fundamental change that requires all the ‘mainstream’ PV capacity to be upgraded or replaced with new tooling.

In stark contrast to the semiconductor and display industries, this has yet to happen in the PV industry. Possibly the shift to six-inch wafers and substrates below 200 micron are the closest the PV industry has got, but neither required wholesale changes overnight with the fear of being confined to yesterday’s technology if immediate retrofitting was not undertaken.

Scientific discoveries aside, over the last 18 months, the appetite of the supply side to change PV technology has been minimal. The industry has had to go through a phase of stability and cost reduction, and consolidation and rationalisation. Call it what you may, but there was almost no chance that any leading player would do anything risky in manufacturing last year.

Figure: Solar PV technology changes over the past three years

Graph for Can solar panel technology change before 2015?

Source: NPD Solarbuzz PV Equipment Quarterly, January 2014

As we start 2014, the prospects for any major change in PV technologies, used to supply end-market demands for the rest of the year, are minimal. None of the disruptive technologies is ready to move in large volume from pilot or beta line to GW level mass production. And capex spend is still being guarded cautiously, although this is likely to change very soon.

Therefore, the year of change – if change is to come in the near future – has to be 2015, at the earliest. Change in 2015 would allow any key improvements rolled out during 2014 to be implemented either as upgrades to existing capacity or as part of new capacity planned for next year by the industry leaders.

But for now, those seeking to benefit from technology change in the PV industry will just have to sit patient and wait another six months. By then, the actions of the dominant players will provide the first glimpse of what these changes may look like. And if this occurs, then comparing PV technology changes in three years from now should present itself in a very different way than the trends inferred from the graphic shown in this blog. Solar PV technology changes in production between 2010 and 2013.

Finlay Colville is vice-president of NPD Solarbuzz. This article was published on Solarbuzz. Reproduced with permission.

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