Q-Cells puts the pedal to the metal

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Silicon solar cell producers should forget about the polysilicon shortages, while thin-film companies need not worry about silane supplies. Not because constrained supply issues are expected to ease and material costs to finally lower over the next two years, but because a potentially bigger concern is looming!

Metallurgical-grade silicon is vastly cheaper to produce and ramp than polysilicon. Granted, the purity levels are lower and efficiencies suffer, but development work at Becancour Silicon has shown that impurity levels have been reduced dramatically in only a few years, especially in relation to boron, carbon and oxygen levels.

Q-Cells have worked closely with Becancour Silicon, among others, and the company now feels extremely confident in using the material for a 300MW solar cell facility being built in Malaysia. Importantly, it will be used directly rather than blended with polysilicon.

Should polysilicon prices come down dramatically from 2010 onwards, the fear is that margins throughout the PV supply chain will suffer. Manufacturing scale becomes a key buffer to such pressures, which could see a consolidation in the market develop as smaller players get squeezed.

However, there is another buffer to margin declines – metallurgical grade silicon. Q-Cells is grabbing a significant supply of the stuff on long-term contracts just as polysilicon prices are expected to fall.

The simpler and less costly production process can also be ramped significantly faster, so expect Q-Cells to take advantage of that abundant potential supply for years to come. Others will obviously get on that bandwagon; Becancour Silicon has signed four supply deals so far and more are expected to follow.

How this impacts the established polysilicon suppliers and the 20-plus new entrants is not yet known, though it was no surprise that shares in MEMC, for example, declined on the Q-Cells new deal.

Thin-film suppliers may also find that their low-cost-per-watt approach and unshackled ramp ability may not be as strong a business approach as it has thus far proved. Silicon solar cells are fighting back and Q-Cells has the pedal to the metal in more ways than one.

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