Sharp’s teeth

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The news that Sharp and Enel are to build the world’s first 1GW thin-film manufacturing plant in Europe (Italy) at a cost of over $1 billion, is a significant move by Sharp to remain a major force within the PV industry. From any angle the move is impressive and bold and reinforces the direction the industry is going, even if that trend is only in its infancy.

Energy companies such as Enel have obviously seen the writing on the wall regarding renewable energy and the goal of grid parity and below in the coming years. Rightly, Enel has identified that Italy could be the first EU country to reach parity, due to the higher electricity prices there.

However, it has also seen the need to get involved in the manufacturing side with partners that have the capital and expertise in these fields to seriously attack the cost structures with a direct to-market business model and scale of manufacturing at a single location.

Sharp has also indicated with this new joint venture that it wants to be viewed as an energy company in the future, securing a major energy partner to drive module sales to such high volume production levels that mitigate the risks of scaling production without the guarantee of an end-market.

Interestingly, Sharp would become a major thin-film player with this development. It had already announced a major capacity ramp of thin-film production that would kick in in 2010. The extra production levels now expected from the plant in Italy in 2010 mean that Sharp could be competing with First Solar for top spot. However, with a third party manufacturer expected to be involved, it is yet not known how we should divide production levels.

As with rivals SunPower, Suntech and others that are now working on closer collaboration with energy suppliers, eventually we will see the merging of PV’s major players into integrated energy operations. Sharp hailed the move as the world’s first “solar business model” and they may be right. What is now inevitable is that other major players will intensify their efforts, so expect more deals occurring on similar lines.

The Sharp and Enel announcement also puts Italy firmly on the PV manufacturing map as well as potentially making it the next hottest PV market after Germany and North America in the next five years.

With plans to get the legal side sorted by year-end, we should then know the identity of the unnamed ‘third party’ that will be involved in the thin-film manufacturing side. I don’t think I will speculate here who that may be but it wouldn’t surprise me should a turnkey equipment supplier get involved, if not in this particular JV, but it would seem such a move is becoming increasingly inevitable in the near future as companies start the march downstream.

In all, the news is a significant development and one that may well be the benchmark for the industry in the future. Sharp has shown its teeth in more ways than one with this announcement and I expect some of its rivals to bite back soon!

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