In November, Eicke Weber, head of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE, casually announced a rather ambitious plan. The ISE, the French research institute INES and Switzerland’s Institute for Solar Technology are working on a funding concept for a European photovoltaic (PV) production facility with a yearly capacity of at least one gigawatt (GW). The idea is that the plant, conceived as a joint undertaking by the European solar industry, will be able to process the latest cell technologies at a lower cost than Chinese mass producers, thus offering new prospects to crisis-hit European solar companies.
“Existing production plants with a yearly output of 100 to 500 megawatts (MW) will no longer be able to make a profit at the future price level. State-of-the-art multi-gigawatt (GW) factories are the only way for manufacturers to remain internationally competitive,” explains Weber. The industry benchmark is China. US fim GTM Research estimates that by 2017 the leading Chinese manufacturers will have slashed the production costs of solar panels from the current USD 0.56 per watt (W) to USD 0.36. By contrast, the costs for European manufacturers are currently USD 0.78. To keep up with China, they would have to more than halve their costs in the next four years. This will only be possible by means of more efficient cells and panels, and significantly larger production plants and the resulting economies of scale.
Cutting-edge manufacturing technology, increased automation and vertical integration of the value-creation chain will also help to keep costs down in the planned multi-GW factory. An important part of the concept is that the production of ingots, silicon wafers, cells and panels and the sale of solar systems, traditionally separate processes, will all be brought under the same roof. This will cut down on transportation costs and promote synergies between the various stages in the manufacturing process. Chinese companies generally follow a different approach, manufacturing components in different locations, sometimes even in Taiwan, so as to benefit from division of labour and specialisation.
This is an abridged version of the article – the full text is available in new energy issue 06/2013.
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