Emphasis on R&D and partnerships key strategy for Gintech Energy

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Major Taiwan-based solar cell producer Gintech Energy Corp is placing greater emphasis on partnering with companies outside its core cell manufacturing activities, while focusing on R&D activities to remain a key player in the sector. 

Dr. Wen-Yen Pan, chairman and CEO of Gintech Energy recently sat down with PV Tech at the company headquarters in Hsinshu, Taiwan to discuss a range of key business and technology topics. 

It has been a bumpy financial ride for Gintech in the last 12 months, primarily driven by the imposition of anti-dumping import duties in the US. Gintech reported weak March 2015 sales, marking a new low point in sales since 2013.

Solar cell shipments also flat lined in 2014. Gintech’s solar shipments stood at 1,346MW at the end of 2014, compared to 1,382MW shipped in 2013. 

As a major merchant supplier of high-efficiency solar cells and ranked eighth globally by market research firm IHS, Gintech had been a key supplier to Chinese module manufacturers supplying product into the booming US market. 

Like its main Taiwanese rivals such as Neo Solar Power (NSP), Motech Industries and TSEC Corp, Taiwan cell producers have also benefited from strong outsourcing demand from Japanese module producers and the recent production imbalances seen at integrated PV manufacturers, preferring to add new module capacity at the expense of ingot/wafer and solar cell capacity additions. 

As a result, 40% of total shipments in 2014 went to greater China customers, while 26% went to the EU. ‘East Asia,’ which primarily meant Japan and India accounted for 15% of total shipments last year, followed by ‘Emerging Markets’, which included the US, Thailand and Africa accounted for around 19% of total shipments.

Capacity expansion plans

Not surprisingly, Gintech recently announced it was to establish a 350MW cell production plant in Thailand, investing approximately US$45 million in the first phase to acquire land, facilities and equipment. 

The company plans for production to start in the first quarter of 2016 with the aim of providing a broader geographical manufacturing footprint and support module assembly firms in the country, noting that solar cell ASPs in Thailand were 20% higher than market prices in China and Taiwan due to trade barriers.

However, according to Dr. Pan Phase 1 in Thailand would also include 150MW of ‘high-end’ module production and that production of cells and modules were expected to be ramped by the end of 2015.

Dr. Pan noted that these PV modules would be exported and production “fast-tracked” primarily for its US customers as well as its strategic module partner Gintung and JV EPC firm CTCI, which is also planning PV power plants projects in the US and is said to be the largest EPC in Taiwan. A major shareholder in CTCI is Mitsubishi. 

He also highlighted that Thailand offered the best support for establishing manufacturing bases in the country and said there was “not any possibility of anti-dumping duties” on the country. 

Dr. Pan also added that Gintung had a module capacity of 320MW at the end of 2014, yet was planning a major expansion to 1GW by early 2016.

Despite the impact of the US anti-dumping duties on sales from mid-2014 onwards, shipment output to manufacturing capacity has been relatively tight since 2012 as overall market demand continued to increase. 

As a result, Gintech increased solar cell capacity from 1.5GW in 2013 to 1.8GW by the end of 2014. The addition of the Thailand plant will take Gintech’s nameplate solar cell capacity to 2.15GW. 

One of Gintech’s largest customers has been Sharp Corporation, which Dr. Pan noted “had actually been its largest customer for the last 10 years”.

Other well known downstream players including SunEdison were said by Dr. Pan to be a major customer. SunEdison has already guided plans to double PV project completions in 2015 to over 2GW, with projects in the US and globally. 

R&D activities

Critical to Gintech’s future success is the emphasis on R&D, which has typically been around 2% of total sales, according to Gintech’s chairman.

“This industry has not been healthy for several years due to the overcapacity and declining ASPs. Many good companies around the world have gone. Personally I think this is not been good for the industry and many companies have not had money to invest in R&D. I have tried to persuade at every chance my competitors and colleagues to push technology and differentiate Taiwan cells from the likes of China. 

“Gintech puts a lot of effort into R&D, we should be very strong in P-type technology rather than N-type due to the increased number of process steps and cost issues associated,” noted Dr. Pan. “There are only two companies in volume production with high-efficiency P-type PERC solar cells, Gintech is one of them.”

At SNEC 2013, Gintech launched its ‘Diamond Series’ series of multicrystalline solar cells that were verified by TÜV Rheinland at 19.5% conversion efficiencies. 

The three bus bar (segmented) design includes a SiNx anti-reflecting coating and are PID (Potential Induced Degradation) free.

Maintaining compatibility to present module assembly processes while being of similar reliability has been a key aspect of the cell series and typically provides modules with around 270W performance. The company also provides a four bus bar monocrystalline cell in the Diamond Series with 20% to 20.6% efficiencies that is also PID free. 

Gintech also offers its ‘Douro Series’ cells that in 2014 provide conversion efficiencies of 19% to 19.6% and 17.6% to 18.2% for mono and multi configurations respectively. 

PERC-based cells accounted for around 20% of Gintech’s production in the first quarter of 2015, equating to around 350MW. 

“Taiwan has produced the highest cell efficiencies, reliability and quality consistency all through a focus on R&D,” added Dr Pen. “Taiwan has done a much, much better practical job than most countries taking technology from lab to fab the best.” 

Although still concerned about overcapacity in the supply chain and weak ASPs Dr. Pen remains optimistic about future global PV demand and grid parity demand dynamics in a growing number of countries. 

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