Looking back over 2013, it’s clear the year was a transitional one. A key takeaway has been the recovery in end-market demand that has restored manufacturing utilisation rates to almost 100% for tier one PV module manufacturers and the opportunity for many but not all PV module manufacturers to return to operating profits in the second half of the year.
Actual overcapacity as well as perceived overcapacity have effectively been dealt with, primarily through numerous companies exiting the sector, others in financial distress cutting capacity and overall demand from key growth markets such as China, Japan and US absorbing much of the bankable capacity that exists at major tier one module suppliers.
As a result, PV module ASPs have stabilised and a cautious phase of capacity expansions is underway for many tier one suppliers, which has started to bring relief to equipment and material suppliers after several extremely difficult years.
The industry is ‘officially’ in an upturn and one that could easily turn into a major boom in 2014.
Another transition for the industry in 2013 was the increased momentum by module manufacturers to move downstream to become PV energy providers (PVEPs), following the success of the business model by the likes of First Solar and SunPower.
It seems only a few years ago that the business model of being a fully integrated PV manufacturer was seen as the best model for market success, yet the transition to PVEP status by the very same leading integrated companies is also spurring higher levels of manufacturing outsourcing, suggesting business models are also very much in a transition phase.
PV Tech traffic
With respect to PV Tech’s website traffic in 2013, the PV industries most popular website saw visitor traffic top the two million mark for the second year in a row, up over 100,000, a 7% plus increase from the previous year. Unique visitor levels increased by nearly 25% compared to 2012, while actual page view numbers declined around 8%, all according to Google Analytics.
Increased traffic from emerging markets was principally behind the growth, offset slightly by some decline in traffic from European countries such as Germany and France, though these countries remained in the top 10 rankings as in previous years.
In total, the PV Tech website received visitors from 225 countries around the world in 2013, according to Google Analytics. Here, in reverse order, are our top 10 most-read stories of 2013.
Top 10 story review
Two heavily reported subjects throughout the year included the ongoing ‘solar shakeout’ and the EU anti-dumping case against China. However, these did not dominate in the top 10 rankings.
On a company basis, some familiar names that had appeared in previous listings emerged again but in respect to very different subjects.
The tenth most popular story in 2013 did cover the EU anti-dumping case but was actually in respect to its conclusion and subsequent issue over PV Tech’s exclusive findings that a number of Chinese module producers that had been shipping products into the EU were mysteriously missing from the official EU documents.
Over 16 companies were not listed and therefore had not been provided new customs reference numbers, effectively stopping them from importing into the EU unless they paid import duties as they would also not receive a shipment quota that had been agreed with Chinese authorities.
Strangely, since the administrative ‘error’ was covered in early August, that situation remains in limbo. Even today there is also no public information on how the shipment quota system was shared out to those originally on the list.
A subject never appearing before in the rankings and one of the emerging developments for the PV industry, battery storage was the ninth most popular story.
The story concerned news that Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) would install the world’s largest battery system at an electrical substation in Hokkaido, which had an expected storage capacity of around 60MWh. The project would be completed in March 2015.
In eighth place was a just one of numerous stories this year about the Suntech saga and its subsidiary entering bankruptcy in China. Part of the solar shakeout series, the story was about news reports from China that Dr. Shi, the ousted executive chairman and then current CEO, David King, had both been detained by Chinese police, a week after the news broke of Wuxi Suntech being forced into bankruptcy proceedings by a swathe of Chinese banks.
The Suntech Power Holdings saga continues today, although with the Shunfeng rescue of Wuxi Suntech, a major part of the saga has potentially been concluded.
Putting Bill Gates and storage in the same headline was bound to gain people’s attention and that was exactly what happened with the seventh ranked story when PV Tech covered the news that the billionaire Microsoft founder had been an investor in a US$35 million funding round of Aquion energy, a Pittsburgh-based firm that is developing a new water-based battery system.
Since the story broke in April, Aquion has only recently announced a micro-grid technology collaboration with Siemens.
A topic that in one form or another tends to garner high traffic year-on-year relates to product pricing and cost trends. This year the sixth most popular story concerned a longer range PV module costing forecast from GTM Research.
The market research firm noted that China's tier one PV module manufacturers were on track to cut production costs to US$0.36 (cents) per watt by the end of 2017, a reduction of 14 cents from costs at the end of 2012.
The expected cost reductions were attributed to technology innovations and the increased use of automation in the manufacturing process.
With the general expectation of a technology buy cycle sometime in 2014, it will be interesting to see if the industry actually meets or even exceeds this figure before the end of 2017.
Providing hard facts on a recovering industry and a perfect example of key players’ transition to the PVEP business model, the fifth most popular centred focused on SunPower’s first quarter financial results released in early May. A significant turnaround in its financial situation and the revelation the company was effectively sold out, a situation that is expected to continue through 2014, set the industry scenario since then.
Later in the year, SunPower continued to mirror industry developments with the announcement that it would build a new leading-edge production plant for next generation ‘Maxeon’ solar cells.
The fourth ranked story is one that the industry should never repeat. Product design issues within Scheuten Solar’s module junction box had been behind a series of rooftop fires stretching back several years. The scale of the fault was attributed to around 650,000 ‘Multisol’ modules distributed between September 2009 and October 2010, primarily across Europe.
The exclusive and in-depth feature was a collaboration between PV Tech and sister website, Solar Power Portal UK (SPP UK), reporting comments from the experts dealing with aspects of the problem.
The story was by a wide margin the most read on the SPP UK website and combined with PV Tech’s traffic was the most read story of 2013 across the Solar Media website portfolio.
Not surprisingly, the owners of Scheuten Solar were later forced to close down the company as it proved impossible to repair the damage to the reformed company’s brand image.
A topic that always attracts high traffic is that of record cell/module efficiencies. In the past SunPower has received a top 10 ranking based on this topic and returns this year at number three. SunPower claimed in April that its new X-Series modules provided approximately 8 to 10% more energy per rated watt when compared with conventional crystalline-based modules and had a conversion efficiency of 21.5%.
The second most viewed story featured another solar shakeout development, this time in regards to Bosch exiting the sector by the end of 2013. The rapid and significant price declines due to massive overcapacity in the industry, despite its own efforts to reduce production costs, were given as the key reasons for the industry exit.
The news reverberated around the world and not least in Europe, especially at a time when every European-based manufacturer was feeling the financial effects of more than two years of fierce competition from China-based rivals.
Recently some good news has meant that the production facilities and staff will be transferred to SolarWorld with the hope it will be a new start and boost to regaining its market competitiveness. The story on that development is waiting to be written.
Finally, we have arrived at the most popular story on PV Tech in 2013. Normally, we get a sense of the big stories and certainly these appear in this year’s rankings but it was a surprise that the top story garnered significantly more page view traffic than even the higher ranked stories this year.
The story literarily rocked the industry when First Solar, the world’s leading thin-film manufacturer and PVEP, announced the acquisition of little-known start-up, TetraSun and would be aggressively ramping its copper-based advanced monocrystalline cell technology.
Though not a seismic shift in First Solar’s module manufacturing, as CdTe remains a central part of its business model, it could prove seismic for its tier one rivals in the future. The company is already placing equipment orders for the new venture and we should gain further insight next year, which is obviously going to be of great interest to readers.
With the most viewed story this year featuring leading-edge solar cell technology that will ramped to production shortly, it is hoped that technology innovation and sustainable capacity expansions will dominate industry trends in 2014.