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Europe’s PV manufacturing sector has a limited window of opportunity in which to position itself to capitalise on the predicted worldwide upturn in solar demand, according to the director of Germany’s Fraunhofer ISE research establishment.

Addressing the European Photovaltaic Technology Platform’s annual conference in Brussels yesterday, Professor Eicke Weber said without investment now, Europe faced the danger of losing its position as the world leader in PV technology development to Asian countries.

Weber said that Europe needed to decide if it wants to be at the forefront of the wave of new technological development expected as a consequence of PV supply and demand regaining full equilibrium by around 2017, as generally expected, and demand continuing to grow thereafter.

“The window of opportunity is opening right now; right now we have to prepare for 2017-2018, when the global production capacity meets the global market volume. Therefore now is the time we need to start thinking about it,” Weber said.

“The key message is that if we want to keep research in Europe, we cannot say we only do research in Europe [and] miss out the middle part, the manufacturers.”

Weber contested the prevailing wisdom that European PV manufacturing is no longer able to compete with China and other Asian countries such as Malaysia. He said the main competitive disadvantage Europe had compared to China was not labour costs, which he said accounted for only 5% of module production costs, but the availability of investment.

“If investors have to pay 7-8% interest in Europe, then we’re at a competitive disadvantage,” Weber said. “So the availability of investment money is the key competitive disadvantage of Europe compared to Asia.

“We can talk about technology as much as we want, but as long as we’re not prepared to generate a level playing field in that regard, Europe will not be able to keep key enabling technologies in Europe. If the investment money is not there, then of course everything goes to other countries – not just China, but also the likes of Malaysia where government puts industrial policy in place and says we want to put investment here, we’ll make money and credit available.”

Weber said where Europe still had a competitive advantage was in the development of cutting-ede PV technology, which would become increasingly important in the future as the key metric in PV shifts from cost per watt to levelised cost of electricity.

He reiterated plans first revealed earlier this year that Fraunhofer ISE is developing with France’s National Solar Energy Institute (INES) and the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology for a ‘European gigawatt fab’ – the so-called X-GWp project.

This would develop the latest cell technologies needed to produce the higher efficiency modules needed in tomorrow’s market, Weber said.

“Production can be done cost competitively in Europe if it is using the latest technology and if it is done on scale,” Weber said. “It has to be right scale to reap the benefits of scale, it has to be latest technology offering the highest possible efficiency, which will drive down the cost of electricity.”

Outlining further details of the X-GWp project, Weber said it would begin with a 100MW pilot production line, probably located at Fraunhofer ISE’s facility in Freiburg, with the eventual fab to be located on the Rhein, reflecting the German, French and Swiss cooperation on the project.

He added that the project would focus on developing next-generation crystalline silicon technologies.

“From the technology and market point of view, we believe that the crystalline silicon will [continue to] be the most competitive of the PV technologies,” Weber said. “We’re not yet discussing the technology we’ve chosen for our approach – but it should be disruptive PV technology, not just business-as-usual PV technology, saving material, less process steps, allowing us to create cheaper solar power.”

Referring to a PV “gold rush” in the coming years predicted by Deutsche Bank in early 2014, Weber concluded: “Let’s all be part of it, let’s make sure Europe is part of it.”