Perovskite, manufacturing woes and quality control – Intersolar Europe 2024 takeaways

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The Intersolar Europe 2024 trade show closed its doors for another year on Friday (21 June). Ahead of further coverage and interviews from the conference, this piece will collate a few of the key takeaways that we saw on the ground at the show last week.

Perovskite and tandem next-gen

Intersolar Europe 2024 hosted the biggest players in the PV manufacturing space, each with a sizeable footprint on the trade floor to flex their technological and marketing muscles. And almost without exception, they all brought their own iteration of next-generation perovskite-tandem solar technology.

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Perovskite is well-known to the industry by now, touted as the “next big thing” after n-type cells once the various manufacturers and research institutions manage to create a stable and long-lasting product. The material’s main drawback is its volatility, as it degrades significantly when exposed to the elements and is yet to be put to commercial use at any meaningful scale.

From conversations with manufacturers over the three days of Intersolar Europe 2024, it emerged that perovskite was one of (if not the) main research and development (R&D) focus for the future. A representative from Qcells told me that their R&D centre in Thalheim, Germany was predominantly concerned with tandem technology development, but they were unable to give a timeline for when the technology might make an appearance on the market.

A perovskite-tandem cell exhibited by Qcells, degrading in real time. Image: Will Norman for PV Tech

Qcells chose to display a perovskite-silicon tandem cell behind glass at its booth (pictured left) which was degrading in real time under the sweltering, humid conditions at the show. In highlighting the challenge so obviously, their representative told me that their statement was clear: ‘We’re not there yet. Anyone saying otherwise should raise questions.’ Qcells is currently involved in an EU-funded perovskite cell research programme dubbed the PEPPERONI consortium.

The cells do survive longer when encased in a module, like the products shown at GCL’s booth. The company was clear that they were pilot products only, but the emphasis had decisively shifted regarding perovskite; it is now “when”, not “if”.

During the show, LONGi announced a commercial M6-size wafer-level silicon-perovskite tandem solar cell with 30.1% efficiency.

Oxford PV CTO Chris Case in front of the company’s perovskite-tandem module. Image: Will Norman for PV Tech

Most notable were the contributions from lower-volume manufacturers and research houses. Oxford PV announced a tandem module produced in partnership with SolarMaxx on the first day of the exhibition which Wilhelm Stein, CEO of Sunmaxx, said would “outshine everything that came before.”

I also spoke with Oxford PV CEO David Ward (full interview to follow) who revealed that the company had signed some trial supply agreements with companies looking to test their tandem modules in the field. Ward said that perovskite-tandem technology was “like a tide” – it is definitely coming in, sooner or later.

European manufacturing is fast asleep

Another unmissable fact from the conversations PV Tech had at Intersolar was that Europe’s solar manufacturing industry – at least its silicon solar supply chain – is unlikely to take off.

We spoke with a number of major manufacturers including Qcells, JA Solar and Meyer Burger, all of which said that, after conducting feasibility studies for European capacity, the numbers do not add up.

The sector’s woes are well-documented, and a number of European companies have abandoned capacity on the continent in the last year, notably Meyer Burger which announced the closure of its German module production factory in January.  

The EU’s Net Zero Industry Act (NZIA), which is designed to bring more clean energy manufacturing to the continent, was under discussion at Intersolar Europe 2024. Speaking on one of the event’s panels, members of the European Commission and its solar industry discussed the need for effective implementation and limiting the amount of bureaucracy that falls onto manufacturers.

Both Meyer Burger and Qcells told PV Tech that, politically, it would be advantageous for Europe to have a solar manufacturing capacity in order to guard against possible supply shockwaves from China. But Oliver Beckel, head of public affairs at Qcells, added that the costly decision to onshore manufacturing will only become profitable if some supply disruption occurs or geopolitical tensions with China escalate. If nothing happens, he said, the decision to build GW-scale capacity begins to look very expensive.

One Tier-1 Chinese manufacturer told us that it would take political will and intervention to address the cost premium that modules produced in Europe would undoubtedly incur, and which its customers were currently unwilling to pay. In another discussion at the event, the founders of the Libertas feasibility study said that European-made modules would run at an eight-cent-per-watt premium over Chinese imports.

There were a number of European companies at the event who are engaged in setting up European factories, and there is every chance that the NZIA may prove effective in getting them up and running, particularly if it includes “resilience bonus” that parts of the industry have called for. It was clear, though, that the biggest players are holding back.

Many of Europe’s woes have been caused by massive oversupply in the solar value chain and a subsequent drop in module prices. In a post on X (formerly Twitter) following the end of Intersolar Europe 2024, Jenny Chase, solar analyst at Bloomberg NEF, said:

Quality and reliability

There was also a noticeable emphasis on PV module and system quality assurance and reliability at the show.

Walking Intersolar’s vast halls, numerous stalls were focused on quality assurance and testing, with notable presence from Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE (Fraunhofer ISE), ISC Konstanz and other testing houses. There was also a panel discussion on the topic.

A number of recent reports have raised eyebrows about the number of defects in solar modules reaching the market. Late last year, Clean Energy Associates (CEA) published findings that showed a “massive increase” in PV module defects, and more recently Kiwa PVEL published its Module Reliability Scorecard which recorded the highest number of module failures in its ten-year history.

These recent developments have coincided with the industry’s arrival as a “terawatt-scale” force and the huge capacity expansions – way in excess of market demand – from Chinese manufacturers. Correlation does not imply causation, but one source at the show told us that some manufacturers are not tested regularly after obtaining a certification from a technological testing house, and as such may begin to cut corners once the qualification has been issued.

PV Tech published an in-depth look at module quality concerns in the Q1 2024 issue of our downstream journal, PV Tech Power.

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