SAN FRANCISCO—For those laboring in the photovoltaic equipment manufacturing business, the recent signs of growth and purchasing activity in the customer base as well as sturdy end-market demand provide reasons to be bullish. At the SEMI PV Manufacturing Forum held in conjunction with Intersolar North America 2014, IHS analyst and conference moderator Jon Campos shared data that showed the entire crystalline silicon value chain—polysilicon, wafer, cell, and module—likely to increase factory capacity utilization this year. What does this mean for the long-suffering tool vendors? This year, capital expenditure levels should push close $4 billion—the best since 2011—with 2015 and 2016 looking even better, according to IHS.
Campos explained that not only is the general tool-procurement environment improving, but also a sizeable portion of the expenditures will be made on newer technologies. The use of diamond wire for wafering, now limited to slicing about 5GW of mostly n-type ingots, is forecast to balloon to more than 27GW by 2017 and will replace steel wires as the majority choice by 2020. This prediction finds a parallel story with the production of n-type monocrystalline cells, which should rise from about 5% of the total production output to 30% by 2020 as new, high-efficiency architectures requiring the higher quality material proliferate. IHS also expects the “efficiency gap” between cell and module conversion numbers to decrease significantly for both multicrystalline and monocrystalline technologies.
Jim Mullin of Applied Materials echoed Campos’ upbeat sentiments, noting that his company is working with its customers to “accelerate the efficiency clock” and to do so at a low cost and 95%+ line yields. Although I’m not so sure about the use of the “clock” metaphor (a term possibly lifted from the semiconductor side of AMAT’s corporate brain), the push to add 5-10W per year to average module power rating led the solar products VP/GM to note a recent quip: “260 is the new 250.” The big dog equipment supplier believes the c-Si industry is hitting or is about to hit several major technological inflection points, including rear-passivated cells and the wide use of high-throughput implantation gear for boron doping to achieve low 20s efficiencies on n-type wafers.
Above all, the advent of the age of n-type—especially the monocrystalline variety—is prominent in AMAT’s gameplan. During a speakers’ panel at the end of the morning session, Mullin’s outlook for n-type surpassed even Campos/IHS’s bullish prognostications: he sees the higher quality, light-induced degradation-free substrate material pushing to 40% and then 50% of shipments in the not-too-distant future, as manufacturers emphasize higher efficiency advanced cell architectures and p-type schemes run out of steam.
(This just in: Although Mullin still wore his Applied Materials cap for the forum, the company announced Monday evening that, with the looming closure of its monster merger/acquisition deal with/of Tokyo Electron, it will be changing its name to Eteris.)
Several examples of efficiency gains and cost reduction approaches that underscored the evolutionary nature of most PV process improvements were presented at the forum. Wai Lo of Hanwha Q Cells explained how an optimized cell layout featuring a “fancy busbar” and fine-line screen printing has helped reduce silver consumption per cell by some 70% over the past four years. He also described briefly a new module architecture scheme, where the use of half cells has significantly limited interconnection losses and increased module power by about 9 watts compared to a same-sized panel using full cells. The half-cell modules are not yet shipping to customers, he added.
One factoid that highlights the growing impact and inherent scalability of solar PV came from Trina Solar’s Pierre Verlinden. He noted that the largest hydroelectric power plant on the planet, the Three Gorges complex in China, took some 25 years to design and build and resulted in the destruction of a large swath of beautiful landscape. With PV deployment expected to reach at least 14GW in China this year and likely top that amount in 2015, the 26GW of generating capacity extant at the mega dam project will be eclipsed by less than two years’ volume of the rising solar surge.
PHOTO COURTESY OF HANWHA Q CELLS
Tags: crystalline silicon, LCOE / levelized cost of energy, market research, next-generation PV, performance and reliability, polysilicon/wafers, PV / photovoltaics, R&D / research & development, solar cells, solar energy, solar modules, solar power, solar production, solar production equipment, solar production facilities, thin film photovoltaics, utility-scale solar