Technology changes being implemented by major solar PV module suppliers today are poised to provide large-scale solar investors, developers, EPCs and asset owners with significant opportunities in 2018-2020.
Understanding what these are – and how to factor expected performance gains into site design and financial models – has now become critical for all downstream stakeholders, in particular site investors, project developers, and EPCs.
This article outlines the key module supply changes that need to be understood now, and reviews how we are including this key topic in depth at the forthcoming PV ModuleTech 2017 conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on 7-8 November 2017.
Why so many investors, developers and EPCs have lost touch with module technology
A decade ago, in a smaller and more rooftop-driven solar industry, module technology understanding was more obvious, with the module type options confined to c-Si multi, mono or thin-film. There were far less suppliers of modules in the market, and very few changes were being made to mainstream c-Si module offerings from one year to another.
In fact, until about a year ago, c-Si module supply was still largely based on 60 or 72-cell mono or multi designs, with most developers simply seeing the performance improvements coming from moving designs from 3-busbar to 5-busbar.
Only a couple of module suppliers were really offering volumes of PERC to utility projects, but the signs have been clear that some potentially game-changing module supply changes were moving closer to mass production implementation; something that also was mirrored by the only thin-film company serving the global utility segment, First Solar, when it announced its roadmap to roll-out larger-sized Series 6 panels.
In practice however, even during most of 2017, developers and EPCs involved in utility-scale builds have mainly been hidden from the pending module changes that will fundamentally change their business operations in the next few years. Most secondary asset purchases have almost certainly been based on legacy site builds, with the main focus simply being on troubleshooting build-quality issues and agreeing O&M performance ratio targets.
Add in the rapid growth of solar globally, the China end-market moving from a 10GW to 50GW domestically-controlled segment, and a deluge of contract manufactured c-Si modules from countries such as Vietnam, and it is not surprising at all that downstream companies have not been in a position to fully absorb what new module offerings can bring to their business strategies from 2018 onwards.
What are the top-3 c-Si module changes to understand now?
Attend an academic event such as EU-PVSEC, walk around the booths at any industry exhibition, or glimpse at R&D efficiency record marketing releases, and there is no shortage of options and technology jargon that only serves to confuse key issues such as GW-level quality, reliability and deployed site yields.
Indeed, most module suppliers seem to struggle to explain in basic terms to investors and developers how the new technologies can be delivered from a risk mitigation standpoint, insured and guaranteed, and how they impact the bottom-line return-on-investments.
The list of real game-changers for 2018 is however relatively small, as many of the changes at the ingot/wafer and cell stages are production cost related and have minimal impact on EPCs and project developers, not entirely dissimilar for example in moving from 4 to 5 busbar, or implementing diamond wire saws for multi wafering.
Here is the list of the three key technology changes at the module level that EPCs and developers (and the financing community) need to understand right now, specific to c-Si module technology:
• c-Si PERC module performance and reliability in the field
• c-Si modules based on glass/glass, including bifacial modules with rear side absorption
• Changes from standard 6-inch c-Si cells with 5-busbars, through moving to half-cut cells, singulated sub-cells, shingles, and multi-wire interconnections
Of these three, PERC is the most widespread technology change being seen today, but has little impact on site design, and for many developers or initial asset owners that are there to flip projects in the early years, the impact may be limited, other than the 5-20W delta on MWp-dc ratings and how this translates to module-count on the ground.
The main issue with PERC modules is largely now one of quality, reliability and the changes in bill-of-materials used in cell/module assembly; and risk assessment of the suppliers offering the modules to the market.
The other two changes above are much more disruptive, and optimizing site yields requires much more education from downstream channels to properly exploit, assuming all the due-diligence stages are covered to justify their consideration in the first place.
The other key module technology change in 2018, falling outside the c-Si space, will be First Solar’s availability of the new larger-sized Series 6 thin-film panels.
Explaining in simple terms at PV ModuleTech 2017
We have specifically configured the topics, agenda and speakers at the PV ModuleTech 2017 event, in Malaysia on 7-8 November 2017, to have dedicated technology-focus session on the three major c-Si topics outlined in the bullet points above.
The goal of each session will be to explain in clear and relevant language what these new module offerings are, how they are different from the modules being used until now for large-scale site design and deployment, what changes are needed in module and supplier testing/certification/auditing, and how plant design needs to be altered to enable their potential yield advantages.
For developers, EPCs, O&Ms and the financing and auditing vehicles employed during the various site-realization phases, it could prove to be the most informative two days of information gathering that will ultimately contribute to their business operations and decisions over the next two years.
These three sessions over the two days at PV ModuleTech 2017 can be viewed online at the full conference agenda, accessible at this link. They are as follows:
• Module technology focus session – PERC module reliability in the field
• Module technology focus session – bifacial module features: what are they, when will they be available in gigawatt volumes, & what do they do for developers/EPCs?
• Module technology focus session – beyond 5 busbar modules: mass-production & adoption rates for half-cut or singulated cells, shingling, & multi-wire grids