PV CellTech day one reveals true scale of c-Si cell advances in past 18 months

The afternoon sessions from day 1 yesterday at PVCellTech were exclusive to PERC production, from all the leading PERC producers today.

In a packed hall - including almost every key stakeholder involved in solar cell manufacturing today - the presentations and discussions on the first day of the inaugural PVCellTech conference in Kuala Lumper clearly revealed the true extent of how much c-Si solar cell manufacturing has progressed in the past couple of years.

Reflecting at the end of the first day, one cannot help thinking that the focus on cell technology within mass production has possibly entered a new phase, and to a level of technology focus not seen before in the solar industry when dealing at the GW-scale production.

Just a few years ago, no one would have imagined results from mass production from p-type c-Si mono and multi that were all talking about average cell efficiencies in excess of 20%, and the debate focused on taking p-type cell efficiencies to levels once thought to be the sole domain of advanced n-type variants.

The afternoon sessions from day one yesterday at PVCellTech were exclusively focused on PERC production, with contributions from from all the leading PERC producers today, some with installed capacities above the GW-level, and spanning both multi and mono p-type architectures.

It was great to hear first hand the time spent on R&D going back over a decade, and how the barriers to PERC had painstakingly been learned and overcome within a production environment, including the role of the research community in contributing to this happening at the commercial level.

The PV industry had been lacking this essential blend of academic research and commercial reality for years during the days of negative operating margins and bankruptcies. Indeed, from the sidelines, it was sometimes hard even to remember the initial growth of solar cell manufacturing that was entirely a result of years of research work on a global level, with the frontrunners of the 1980s and 1990s being the catalysts for what was to follow with capacity expansions across Asia during 2005 to 2010.

However, it is perhaps the activity today with p-type multi PERC that is of most interest, given the continued dominance of multi in the marketplace, and the role of China as the largest end market, served almost exclusively by Chinese module suppliers with p-type panels. And not to mention the impact of c-Si wafering that has become a China-controlled supply segment today.

Much of the debate naturally revolved around which technology will come out as the winner, and whether the advances with p-type mono and multi PERC will mean some of the new n-type expansion plans no longer having the cutting-edge and differentiation that was once thought to be the case.

But the solar industry does not need one specific winner for cell manufacturing, and history teaches us that companies with leading-edge technologies, coupled with the correct market-supply strategy for downstream business, can survive and prosper, and co-exist with the sheer scale of p-type multi wafering and cell production currently installed in China and Taiwan.

To illustrate this point, we only have to look at First Solar and SunPower, and reflect on what makes these companies successful from an upstream perspective, and how having an in-house differentiated manufacturing technology can clearly work. And with these two companies, the level of R&D spending and capex that flows annually into improving and upgrading existing lines only highlights that no single size fits all. Five years down the line, we may soon be lumping into that SolarCity’s Silevo aspirations and how going for an altogether different technology at the GW-scale can work, if there is a captive route to deploy the panels in a cost-effective way.

Returning then to p-type c-Si manufacturing and the debate from day one at PVCellTech yesterday, and the takeaway question should probably be more along the lines of: what are the different options for p-type mono and multi, and n-type alternatives, that can be the basis of winning cell manufacturing approaches in a 100GW annual production environment in a few years. And how do developers, EPCs and asset owners create a viable business case to justify the different technologies being employed at the cell and module level.

Any solar modules with average efficiencies above 17% today (whether CdTe panels or 60-cell p-type mono options) have a captive end-market pipeline for supply. If there are indeed four to five different approaches within c-Si production in three to four years from now, say n-type or PERC variants, then the growth of the solar industry will certainly be able to accommodate multi-GW company capacities without any problem at all.

In fact, perhaps the biggest advances in cell/module power levels will come from having a range of competing options, rather than one single technology where the criterion for being dominant will simply be which company has the most production lines and can grow by killing off smaller competition; this would hardly be a good recipe for technology progress.

The focus of day twio at PVCellTech shifts today to n-type, including a session specific to heterojunction with Panasonic’s opening presentation firmly setting the benchmark in what promises to be another incredible day of real world solar cell manufacturing insights.

Already, the biggest question we have been getting on the floor at Kuala Lumper has been: what is the event going to look like next year, what new topics will be included, where will the event be held?

All great to hear, but by far, seeing PV technology being discussed by CTOs and heads of R&D from the leading producers in the industry today, many having never spoken on stage about their technologies before, was for me the biggest takeaway and something that I have waited over 10 years to see happen within the solar industry. 

If that alone can be repeated next year at PVCellTech, few would dispute the value of this type of event being firmly established in the PV events diary as the go-to conference for staying on top of real-world solar manufacturing technologies and trends.

Tags: c-si manufacturing, solar cell, pv celltech

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