Leaders and laggards in PV manufacturers’ 2014 R&D spending

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PV Tech’s annual analysis of 12 major PV manufacturers' R&D spending behaviour was a blockbuster in 2014. 

Not only was there a return to increased spending after peaking in 2011 at US$510 million but a new record was achieved in R&D personnel headcount in 2014.

Thanks to First Solar ramping its crystalline silicon operations at TetraSun, total R&D spending topped US$512 million, and dedicated crystalline silicon R&D activities leaped from US$288 million in 2013 to US368 million in 2014. Image: PV Tech
Employees allocated to R&D activities increased significantly from a low of 2,911 in 2013 (analysed over the last 5-years) to a massive 4,661, beating the previous record of 3,575 in 2011, also the same year of record R&D spending for the industry. Image: PV Tech

It is very clear the recovery in crystalline silicon-based R&D spending has been driven by PERC (Passivated Emitter Rear Cell) technology and line migration as well as continued investments in advanced N-Type monocrystalline technologies. 

Rollercoaster 

Although First Solar topped the rankings with spending of US$143.9 million, up from US$134.3 million in the previous year, several companies starting to close the gap on the top ranked spender that has been the leader for six consecutive years. Image: PV Tech
First Solar has now been ranked first for six consecutive years. Image: PV Tech

The big surprise in 2014 was the significant increase in spending from Yingli Green, which catapulted it two ranking positions to second with R&D expenditure of US$92.5 million, up from US$47.7 million in 2013, a 94% increase year-on-year. 

The key reasons for this increase are highlighted in an exclusive PV Tech article from Yingli Green’s annual analyst day event, held last year during SPI in Las Vegas. 

Yingli Green hasn’t changed its technology roadmap in the last two years, yet its cell efficiency push for both multi and mono-based technologies is finally kicking-in higher R&D activities. 

Another unexpected change was SunPower losing its position behind First Solar to Yingli Green as the company only increased R&D spending by around 26% to US$73.3 million in 2014. 

However, this is still a record for SunPower, having seen spending previously peak in 2012 at over US$63 million.  

Another surprise we could not wait to reveal a while back was the fact that JinkoSolar, the perennial R&D spending laggard increased spending by 60% in 2014, climbing two ranking positions as a result and the US$17.3 million in spending was a also new record for the company. 

The good news for bottom ranked Wuxi Suntech, since its acquisition by Shunfeng has been the re-launch of R&D activities after its former bankruptcy. Suntech spent US$11.7 million on R&D expenditure in 2014, up from US$2.2 million in 2013. The company is expected to spend around US$16 million in 2015, we can exclusively reveal.

But the 2014 rankings also point to another interesting aspect and that is how Canadian Solar has lagged behind its rivals for nearly as long as JinkoSolar did. 

Perhaps because attention had been focused on JinkoSolar, commentary on Canadian Solar’s lacklustre R&D spending has been overlooked, but no more. 

Ironically, both JinkoSolar and Canadian Solar have been moving up the PV manufacturer’s top 10 leader board for several years, despite being the laggards in R&D expenditure rankings. 

Canadian Solar only allocated US$12.05 million to R&D activities in 2014, up slightly from US$11.6 million the previous year. With REC Solar and JinkoSolar increasing R&D spending in 2014, in comparison to Canadian Solar, it fell two ranking places to eleventh. 

Putting its R&D expenditure levels in perspective, Canadian Solar had full-year 2014 revenue of almost US$3 billion and was the third largest PV manufacturer (by module shipments) last year. 

Perhaps even more curious than the position Canadian Solar finds itself is that of Hanwha SolarOne. The company had spent US$15.2 million in 2013 but its R&D spending declined to US$13.8 million in 2014, dropping the company three ranking positions to being ranked tenth, which was also the biggest drop amongst the companies covered in this analysis. 

It is unclear why the company cut R&D spending in 2014, although the planned Hanwha Q CELLS merger may have been a factor, due to Q CELLS well-known R&D activities in Germany, which have in recent years been supporting Hanwha SolarOne’s cell and module efficiency improvements. 

With merger undertaken and recent major capacity expansion plans announced, Hanwha Q CELLS could well be the surprise R&D spender in 2015. 

The full report on 2014 R&D spending will be published in the forthcoming edition of sister technical journal, Photovoltaics International. 

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