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Solar’s next steps: Qcells CEO Justin Lee talks TOPCon as a ‘stepping stone’, targeted capacity expansions and R&D leadership

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Qcells CEO Justin Lee discussing the firm’s capacity expansion and solar R&D plans. Image: Qcells.

Solar PV manufacturer Qcells is steeling itself for a richly competitive future market environment, investing in expanded manufacturing capacities, new solar cell structures and a strategy that intends to take customers on a journey through clean energy.   

On the fringes of Intersolar Europe 2022, Qcells CEO Justin Lee spoke with journalists to describe the company’s vision in detail.

Last week Hanwha confirmed a US$320 million investment into expanding its solar cell and module production facilities in Korea and the US respectively, with an extra 900MW of cell capacity and 1.4GW of module capacity set to come onstream from H1 2023. That module capacity, Lee said, would be targeted specifically at the US residential solar market where it is able to realise more of a premium for its products, offsetting price increases that have plagued the sector for more than a year.

Lee acknowledges the solar industry has faced “very difficult times” of late, but argues that an expected stabilisation of costs of shipping and polysilicon, which he suggests would begin later this year, would be supportive.

The reality is, however, that cost increases have been passed onto consumers and customers of Qcells, which Lee says had to be done in order for the company to survive. Lee expects Qcells’ fiscal performance to improve into the second half of this year, with June and July described as “critical months” for the manufacturer.

Nevertheless, the company’s investment into expanding its manufacturing output speaks of its confidence in the situation to improve. Lee says the scope for polysilicon expansion plans in China, if executed, would leave the market in a state of oversupply, prices falling as a result. Qcells itself is set to be a major beneficiary of the expanding output of Korean polysilicon producer OCI, which expects to have an output of around 65,000MT within two years.

Polysilicon pricing in particular has proven contentious throughout the last 18 months, the capacity of polysilicon now acting effectively as the de facto cap on module manufacturing and, by extension, deployment. Chinese polysilicon producers have made billions in profits, aided by low energy prices within China.

Those energy prices, Lee says, make producing polysilicon in a cost-competitive fashion outside of China tremendously difficult. Korea, for example, has energy prices around three-times that of China and while pricing volatility of the last two years may have rendered production extremely profitable, even in the scope of high energy prices, the anticipated temporary nature of today’s power prices renders such profitability unsustainable, Lee says.

That conclusion perhaps goes some way to inform Lee’s notion that incentives or subsidies are vital to a solar manufacturing renaissance in Europe, Qcells itself having previously had manufacturing capacity in the continent.

The need for manufacturing subsidies

With Europe one of Qcells’ core markets, it stands to reason that revisiting European manufacturing, with all the logistical benefits that may pose, could be a strategic investment worth making. There is more impetus than ever behind a European solar manufacturing renaissance, with this week’s Solar Strategy reveal setting out a number of initiatives designed to help kickstart movement towards an ambition of having 20GW of PV manufacturing inside Europe by 2025.

But direct subsidies or incentives were absent from the European Commission’s plan, and Qcells’ Lee is forthright in his opinion that they are necessary to narrow the gap in terms of cost with manufacturers in China.

“This industry clearly needs some kind of incentive or subsidy,” Lee says, adding that other policy levers lawmakers have mentioned, such as carbon footprint requirements on imports, while helpful, are “not good enough”.

In the absence of any specific policy, Lee says that critical to Europe’s hopes of competing with Chinese solar manufacturers is the establishment of a fully integrated supply chain, where module makers can source all they need domestically, rather than remaining reliant on imports further up the value chain.

“This [manufacturing] industry clearly needs some kind of incentive or subsidy”

Justin Lee, Qcells

It is easy now to draw a parallel between Europe and the US, the latter’s president Joe Biden having included the Solar Energy Manufacturing for America (SEMA) act in his Build Back Better policy agenda. That bill has proposed a series of tax incentives, rewarding manufacturers of polysilicon, ingots, wafers, cells and modules for establishing manufacturing facilities on US soil.

Lee insists that Qcells’ US manufacturing expansion is not directly linked to the SEMA, or indeed any other trade issues impacting module supply to the US, but instead a market dynamic that is driving interest in ‘Made in America’ panels. But, Lee says, should the SEMA pass then Qcells would revisit the situation.

“From the cost perspective [outlined in Senator Jon Ossoff’s SEMA proposal], we are satisfied. If that policy support is in place, we may consider it,” he says.

TOPCon a ‘stepping stone’

Qcells’ decision to focus solely on modules aimed at the residential market in its most recent expansion plans, whilst catering for growing demand in a market where there is already a shortage of PV modules, also speaks of Qcells’ intent to make its manufacturing more profitable.

Lee says there are three “key ingredients” to increasing its profitability; the first being to procure components cheaper, the second being to increase its average selling price, tapping into the business trope of buying low, selling high. The third – realising premium prices through selling premium, more efficient solar products – depends on the market situation and, evidently, a manufacturer’s own technology roadmap.

Qcells was one of the early proponents of p-type PERC cells, a technology which Lee says the company “enjoyed a lot from in its initial stages”, but readily admits has become “plain vanilla” as the technology class approaches its efficiency ceiling. Its range of Q.TRON panels mark its adoption of a tunnel oxidised passivated contact approach to chasing further efficiency gains, however Lee described the technology as a “stepping stone” to what the company is currently working on.

Qcells’ R&D centres in Thalheim, Germany (itself the subject of €125 million (US$132 million) in investment in 2020) and Pangyo, Korea (established in 2019) are currently developing perovskite tandem cells described by Lee as a “game changer in terms of efficiency gains”.

Lee says Qcells is working “very hard” to expedite commercialisation of this technology and has a “very aggressive” timeline it is working towards. While a perovskite module will not be seen tomorrow, Lee says, the company intends to commercialise perovskite modules in the next few years.

Entering the terawatt era

Lee met with journalists on the fringes of Intersolar Europe 2022, prior to the European Commission’s setting of a 740GWdc solar target, but after a number of member states expressed their desire for that target to be set much higher at 1TW.

Lee describes that aim as “tremendous”, but one that “cannot be realised too soon” in a practical way given the situation regarding manufacturing.

It will not be a shortage of demand that caps the industry, with Lee stating that policymakers are coming round to the idea of solar quicker and more easily than before. The backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent focus on energy independence has only strengthened that opinion.

“Previously when I did the sales pitch to potential customer or policymakers, I always mentioned net zero emissions, climate change and etcetera. But nowadays, I’m emphasising renewables as important… and closely linked to national security, energy independence, that kind of concept. Internally, they already realise the importance of this energy,” Lee says.

Policy hurdles still remain, both existing and looming. Supply chain transparency and traceability remains critical in Qcells’ key markets and admits some of its suppliers are more helpful than others when it comes to supporting traceability requests. Qcells has, however, been able to meet the traceability demands of at least one US solar installer, paving the way for it continue meeting US demand for Made in America modules. The manufacturer’s recent rebrand as a more vertically integrated clean power provider, focuses on associated energy technologies such as heat pumps and partnerships with home technology companies including Samsung, Qcells has a clear vision of not just what the average consumer wants, but how it can be packaged.

With at least 1.4GW of extra capacity on the horizon and firm technology advancements further down the track, that vision looks set to be realised.

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