Q-Cells makes major move on thin film in First Solar’s backyard

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The news that Q-Cells, the largest PV manufacturer in the world in
2007, will break ground on a major manufacturing complex in Mexicali,
Mexico in 4Q08, marks several potential milestones for the emerging
thin-film PV market.

Although the complex is to be built in phases with an important eye focused on the actual demand for thin-film modules in North America and Latin America, the $3.5 billion planned spending is currently the largest of its kind in the PV industry for a single site.

It also underlines the significant potential for thin-film technologies both as a fast-ramp and low-cost solution. It compounds Q-Cells’s belief that it needs to ramp thin-film aggressively to keep pace with market leader First Solar and a growing number of new amorphous silicon thin-film entrants using both Applied Materials and Oerlikon Solar technology.

Q-Cells plans also reinforce the belief in the U.S. utility-scale market being a major user of thin-film technology going forward, as Mexicali is well located close to the border and a short distance from potential massive scale utility projects of the future.

The move by Q-Cells to locate just across the border and in that sense in First Solar’s backyard shouldn’t go unnoticed. First Solar has been very successful at winning utility-scale business in Germany, the largest market now and certainly for many more years. Silicon solar wafers have not been competitive at large-scale plants in Germany since First Solar reached mass production, a trend that would seem set to continue.

Q-Cells is also planning a major plant for silicon solar cells in Malaysia, following First Solar’s thin-film lead of good location and good incentives. Perfect for the emerging markets within Asia and a low-cost base to maintain margins in the future. The same would seem to be in place for Mexicali!

Q-Cells hasn’t yet said what thin film technology it will deploy in its Silicon Border complex. Indeed, it may not be just one type of technology as the company is heavily involved in the roll-out of several types of thin-film processes through pilot production programs.

However, the fact that it is thin film is the important factor and will put greater pressure on First Solar in the 2010 timeframe when both market and mass production are potentially aligned.

Q-Cells also has the benefit of being able, later in 2008, and certainly through 2009, to seed its entire thin-film technology array into U.S. utility-scale trials as its multiple 25MW facilities are all entering production in this timeframe.

Although Q-Cells has always made it clear that a wide range of PV technologies will all co-exist in the future as certain technologies are better for certain applications, it seems that they are taking thin film and the U.S. market extremely seriously. How seriously?

Well, $3.5 billion seems serious to me and more than anyone else is talking about within a single market and technology domain!


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