By Chris O’Brien
Although 2011 proved to be a trying year for the photovoltaic market and 2012 is predicted to remain tough, the future of thin film looks promising when utilizing a long-term lens. In fact, IMS Research recently predicted a surge of demand to upgrade solar Photovoltaic (PV) manufacturing equipment over the next few years. Despite near-term tightness in PV equipment sales, IMS forecasts a v-shaped recovery that returns equipment spending to nearly 20% growth in both 2013 and 2014 and almost 40% in 2015. But with overcapacity still stifling new investments in production growth, and with utilization rates at all-time lows, solar PV manufacturers will focus current efforts on upgrading and replacing aging equipment--which IMS calculates as a US$25 billion/20-Gigawatt (GW) opportunity for equipment suppliers from now until 2016.
This presents an enormous opportunity for thin-film manufacturers. Given this long-term scenario, companies that are feeling pressure to gain market share and remain competitive, are smart to invest in turnkey advanced manufacturing processes and technology. Such investments will prove an essential pathway to come out of this downturn ahead of the competition. In the PV space, industry leaders are combining innovative next-generation hardware with hands-on, real-world experience and real-time on-site support. This creates a truly end-to-end solution and turnkey system, and enables customers to reach a tipping point where they enjoy a renewed competitive advantage as well as profitable and sustainable business growth.
Significant market advances typically result from a combination of individual and diverse accomplishments applied to multiple fronts. Among the more critical individual advances that are being orchestrated to deliver a unified and fundamental improvement to the PV market are:
-Lowering the cost of production
-Higher performance design
-Highly scalable platform
-Low environmental footprint.
Customers who invest in competitive turnkey manufacturing solutions can face a challenging and shifting PV market with greater confidence and less risk and be aligned for a more solid long-term competitive position. Some of the key competitive advantages of the latest generation of turnkey solutions are outlined below.
Low Production Cost
Turnkey manufacturing lines are now able to deliver substantially improved cost performance, enabling customers to produce thin film PV modules for a cost of just US$0.5 per Watt. This figure is 23% lower than similar turnkey solutions of just one to two years ago, demonstrating just how quickly technology is evolving to meet challenging market conditions. This lower cost of production enables thin-film silicon to more aggressively compete directly with other technologies and allows investors to plan on and achieve a profitable and sustainable business even as market prices for PV modules continue to decrease.
High Energy Output
Thin film technologies offer a significant advantage in the actual amount of electricity produced, particularly in high temperature conditions, as a result of the low temperature coefficients. For example, amorphous thin-film silicon has a temperature coefficient that is approximately 50% lower than conventional crystalline modules, and can deliver 5% to 10% more electricity at a high temperature than comparably rated crystalline modules. This high temperature performance advantage aids in enabling thin-film turnkey customers to deliver the lowest Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE), especially in emerging markets in sunbelt regions.
Another advantage of the bundled turnkey manufacturing solution is that it enables customers to leverage the experience and investment of the technology provider in optimizing the long term reliability of the modules. Technology providers conduct rigorous in-house stress-testing under grueling conditions such as high humidity and high voltage, and customers benefit from the results showing that new and advanced module designs out-perform both crystalline and traditional thin film technologies by a factor of several times. Standardization of manufacturing processes also enables customers to accelerate their commercial sales during the ramp-up period by leveraging ‘master certificates’ provided to the technology provider from leading module certification laboratories (e.g.,TUV Rheinland). This can significantly influence investors’ time to positive cash flow and return on their investment.
There has been considerable innovation and improvement to the Plasma Enhanced Chemical Vapor Deposition (PECVD) tools and processes that are the ‘heart’ of turnkey manufacturing lines for thin-film silicon. While this tool already makes possible a cell thickness that is 99% thinner than a standard silicon PV cell, leading turnkey technology providers have gone further. Reduced ion bombardment due to reduced ion energies coming with the latest narrow gap reactor design is the foundation for deposition of highest layer quality resulting in remarkable efficiency gain. Increased utilization of cost sensitive process gases by more than 35% lead to further cost savings.
Light Trapping Module Design
Another example of the innovation embedded in the latest-generation turnkey manufacturing solutions for thin-film silicon is further improvement to the equipment and processes used to deposit the front and back electric contact layers, improving the light-trapping performance and at the same time dramatically increasing throughput and equipment productivity. The result is significantly increased module efficiency along with providing customers with a competitive cost advantage due to greater flexibility in glass procurement as there are no constraints to the use of pre-coated glass.
While the reduction of module production costs is a fundamental pillar of any forward market movement in the PV industry, significant advances are also being made to lower the CAPEX costs for turnkey manufacturing solutions for thin film silicon. The latest generation turnkey solutions are now available for a CAPEX cost of US$1.00 per Watt, 20% lower than the cost of prior generation turnkey lines. Moreover, this CAPEX figure for turnkey manufacturing lines includes not just the equipment and technology license, but also includes total-line performance guarantees and covers the full cost of critical on-site engineering and process integration support by vendor engineers. On-site support ensures that the advanced fab is ramped up smoothly and quickly to accelerate commercialization and return on investment and provides significant risk-reduction to customers.
Another factor that helps to reduce investor risk is that the latest generation turnkey manufacturing lines are engineered with the future in mind. Technology providers continue to invest heavily in further product and process technology improvements, and the latest generation turnkey fabs are designed to enable these future improvements to be incorporated smoothly. Longer term, investors in thin-film silicon turnkey manufacturing lines can take comfort in the fact that this technology is scalable to meet the projected future market growth for solar energy. The supply chain for this technology does not rely on materials that are in limited supply.
Low Environmental Footprint
The use of toxic compounds is a potential concern for current and future PV markets, and thin-film silicon turnkey fab investors have an advantage in this area. Micromorph® thin-film silicon can be produced without the use of any toxic elements or compounds in its construction, eliminating the risk of future market barriers caused by changing environmental policies that may threaten other PV technologies. In addition to this generic advantage for thin-film silicon technology, the latest generation turnkey manufacturing solutions have an additional edge. Due to the enhanced equipment productivity, the ‘energy payback’ for PV module production using the latest generation turnkey manufacturing lines for thin-film silicon is less than one year, a best in class figure in the PV industry, and an indicator of the low carbon footprint that is enabled by the latest generation turnkey lines.
Applying Advances Simultaneously Gives Turnkey Solutions Long-Term Value
As with any end-to-end manufacturing solution, the overall value does not lie in the benefits from individual features but from their unified advantage being applied as a whole. With a comprehensive end-to-end manufacturing solution, turnkey environments can be designed to include guaranteed overall factory throughput targets as well as average module power levels. Additionally, market leaders that offer an on-site engineering team with experience and know-how gained from ramping numerous other fabs around the world can provide assurance on the ramp-up schedule to avoid costly start-up delays and other financial risks.
As substantive and advantaged as newer cutting-edge fabs are today, their long-term value resides in the potential for even further improvement over time. Vendors with a long history of leadership are able to demonstrate their technological progress and market momentum. Their advances are often fueled by many years (if not decades) of investment and innovation. Leading technology providers have been able to achieve dramatic improvements through continuous investment in R&D innovation--e.g., a reduction of production costs by more than 70% over the last four years, turnkey throughput increases by more than 125% and module efficiencies increasing by approximately 24%. These trends drive competitiveness for today’s and tomorrow’s markets and are dramatically contributing to the market momentum the PV industry needs.
Chris O’Brien is Head of Market Development for Oerlikon Solar (www.oerlikon.com/solar/en/), based in Washington, D.C., the U.S.A. Oerlikon Solar is a global supplier of advanced manufacturing equipment and manufacturing lines for low-cost thin-film silicon solar PV modules. O’Brien has held senior management positions with leading solar PV and other energy companies and trade associations for over 20 years.
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