Boost for made-in-USA advanced PV cell manufacturing

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Having rebranded the Nexolon America operations in San Antonio, Texas, as Mission Solar Energy, the long-awaited rebound in US-based c-Si manufacturing has just received a significant boost; something that politicians and legislators in the US have been striving for ever since the high-profile demise of Solyndra.

Following the announcements of fab build-out and orders being placed with key tool suppliers for 2014 delivery, Mission Solar Energy has recently firmed up on a substantial wafer supply agreement for 500 MW of n-type material to cover the 3 year period from June 2014 to July 2017.

In fact, Mission Solar would instantly be propelled to top-3 c-Si cell manufacturer status, joining Suniva and SolarWorld as the only US-based producers with capacity at the 200-MW plus level.

Korea and Europe call the shots

The activities of Mission Solar Energy are being funded out of Korea (OCI and Nexolon), relying upon an advanced c-Si cell technology (n-PASHA) developed in Europe (at the ECN). Raw material supply by way of polysilicon (through n-type wafer delivery) is likely to come into the US from Korea and Taiwan.

The fact that Korean finance and European intellectual property is behind the initiative will be of little concern to the 400 new jobs set to be created in San Antonio, but the implications of this are possibly more worrying to US government departments and public-funded research labs (not to mention the plethora of US-based PV technology initiatives) intended to spearhead US-based solar PV manufacturing jobs.

Mission accomplished or mission impossible

Location aside, setting up a c-Si cell fab to produce n-type product in high-volume is a major challenge, even for established PV manufacturers or the leading module shipment champion today (Yingli Green Energy).

All too often, academic-based roadmaps have painted a somewhat unrealistic picture of n-type market-share gains as being a core part of long-term technology inflection points. Mostly, these forecasts have failed to capture the end-market pull for p-type multi modules and the level to which p-type multi has both increased efficiency (or panel power ratings) and reduced cost.

Adapted from the forthcoming NPD Solarbuzz PV Equipment Quarterly report, the attached figure shows the real n-type c-Si trends (based on upstream production and downstream deployment).

Largely driven by the success of SunPower and Panasonic (Sanyo), several other Asian-based c-Si manufacturers have sought to introduce n-type products to the market over the past few years. The highest profile example has been Yingli Green Energy’s efforts to ramp up Panda lines (also relying upon a variant of the n-PASHA scheme and ECN technology-transfer).

However, the activities of Yingli and Mission Solar probably need to be separated. Yingli’s fate was never going to rest solely upon its ability to ramp up 600MW of Panda lines with industry-leading cost and yield. Being the industry leader in p-type multi module supply (coupled with the US anti-dumping case that meant Panda cells were unlikely to ship to the US) clearly takes centre stage in Boading, with Panda sitting as a differentiated value-added play.

However, Mission Solar has no such fall-back option, and may ultimately sink or swim based on its ability to install, qualify and ramp 200MW annual production of ECN-transferred n-type cell know-how.

While in no way underestimating the risk assigned to Mission Solar’s technology-learning challenge, there are perhaps some positive signs that could tip the balance now for the new n-type options.

First, several years and several-hundred MW worth of capacity learning has been accomplished, courtesy of Yingli’s Panda efforts. Also, the economics of the overall supply deal for Mission Solar are somewhat unique, shielding cell and module costs when compared to a pure-play n-type cell/module maker shipping through third-party downstream channels.

Upstream supply pricing can benefit from Mission Solar’s ownership structure (OCI and Nexolon). Downstream demand also benefits from OCI’s 400MW Alamo project in Texas and other PV projects business in the US market. This probably shifts the key risk from one of cost/pipeline firmly to technology/manufacturing: can Mission Solar install and ramp up 200MW of n-type cell/module capacity fast enough to meet OCI’s downstream pipeline?

Either way, the significance of this for US-based c-Si manufacturing cannot be underestimated. Success of this business-model approach could bridge the gap between the current PV manufacturing climate in the US and the one that politicians and legislators hope will emerge in the long term.

Whether the source of funding or intellectual property is US-based or not is unlikely to trouble many, and would be a small sacrifice to pay in order to secure several hundred high-tech jobs in each state that new fabs are built.

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