Author: PV-Tech

PV ModuleTech 2019 video: Henkel’s Jon Burke

This year’s PV ModuleTech show in Penang opened once more a window into how manufacturers, and the developers they supply to, are navigating the rapid pace of innovation in the module making industry. The launch of the PV ModuleTech Bankability Ratings as the event got underway placed the spotlight on the financial and industrial health of the world’s top module manufacturers.

On the sidelines of the Malaysia show, PV Tech caught up with Jon Burke, solar market strategy head at Henkel. We quizzed him over the trends dominating conference floor discussions, from the top issues when benchmarking module quality today to IEC standardisation, bifacial applications and module manufacturing markets-to-watch.

See here for more information on the agenda, speakers and debate themes of this year’s PV ModuleTech, held in Penang on 22-23 October 2019 

See here for an initial piece taking stock of the PV ModuleTech 2019’s highlights, written as the event got underway in Malaysia

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PV ModuleTech 2019 video: PVEL’s Jenya Meydbray

This year’s PV ModuleTech show in Penang opened once more a window into how manufacturers, and the developers they supply to, are navigating the rapid pace of innovation in the module making industry. The launch of the PV ModuleTech Bankability Ratings as the event got underway placed the spotlight on the financial and industrial health of the world’s top module manufacturers.

On the sidelines of the Malaysia show, PV Tech caught up with Jenya Meydbray, CEO and co-founder of solar testing specialist PV Evolution Labs (PVEL). We quizzed him over the trends dominating conference floor discussions, from the barriers holding bifacial from mass-scale success to what, ultimately, constitutes bankability in today’s module manufacturing.

See here for more information on the agenda, speakers and debate themes of this year’s PV ModuleTech, held in Penang on 22-23 October 2019 

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PV Talk: Dr. Liyou Yang, general manager, Jinergy

Shanxi-headquartered Jinneng Clean Energy Technology Ltd. (Jinergy) has set itself a formidable target as it approaches its sixth anniversary as a solar manufacturer. The PV cell and module maker wants to double its production firepower in the space of a year, simultaneously ramping up R&D efforts to ensure its heterojunction line achieves mass-scale success.

Are the goals within reach? PV Tech put the question to Dr. Liyou Yang, Jinergy’s general manager, during a recent trip to China. Interviewed in downtown Shanghai, he fleshes out the plans for a manufacturing push next year and explains why China will remain central for Jinergy despite the recent downstream slump.

PV Tech: Could you briefly walk us through Jinergy’s inception as a solar manufacturer?

Dr. Liyou Yang: Our parent and energy group Jinneng is based in the Shanxi province, known for its energy contribution to the [Chinese] republic since its founding. About 10 years ago, as coal plants were being wound down and business became tough, they started thinking about how to respond to the challenge and saw renewables were pretty good – fixed tariffs for 25 years, feasible timetables to deliver projects, etc.

Jinneng began experimenting and built the first solar and wind farms in Shanxi. Following their first success they became more serious and formed a clean energy unit about six years ago, which has deployed 2GW of wind and solar so far. There were concerns about components, however: at times solar panels were in high demand so it was hard to get the right stuff. Jinneng thought – since we’re doing this, why don’t we extend the value chain to upstream? Jinneng thus saw the light as a solar manufacturer on the last day of 2013.

PV Tech: What is your current production capacity for PV cells and modules and what are your growth plans for 2020?

Dr. Liyou Yang: Right now we’ve got a PV cell and module production capacity of 2.2GW overall, with 900MW of the total mono-PERC and 100MW heterojunction. Production takes place at two factories in the Shanxi province, and we’re building a 100MW addition at one of the two as we speak.

Next year we want to push capacity up by 2.3GW, to reach a total of 4.5GW. The reason is we want to stay in the game, to catch up not only in terms of scale but also technology. Even within the same generation of technologies, evolution has been pretty fast – the PERC lines we see today are so much more efficient compared to lines built six or 12 months ago. We’ve waited a little bit but now it’s time to increase our capacity, and upgrade the overall technology content in the process.

PV Tech: Which locations and product lines will Jinergy specifically look at as it aims to double production in the space of a year?

Dr. Liyou Yang: The new 2.3GW is going to come from new factories. In the case of cell manufacturing, the facilities will definitely share the same location of our existing two factories [in Shanxi]. We have a pretty large campus there so land is already available – all we need to do now is build. For modules, we’re currently looking at a few options near seaports. We serve many overseas markets so our current bases are not as efficient in terms of exports.

With regards to technologies, for the 2.3GW of new production in 2020 we’ll still be doing mono-PERC. Within mono-PERC, however, we’ll be looking at the most advanced technology elements and equipment developed so far by the industry. We hope that we can produce the best cells in terms of efficiency and cost in our new factories. Obviously, a key aspect here is wafer size.

PV Tech: What about sales? What is Jinergy’s target for 2019 and where do you hope to be next year?

Dr. Liyou Yang: Our plan is to finish 2019 with over 2GW in product shipments, 40% of which should go to the domestic market and 60% overseas. We haven’t set sales numbers for 2020 as of yet but I think they could reach 2.5GW all in all.

In terms of specific products, uptake of our JNHM72 heterojunction module [which broke the 450W output mark this year, as Jinergy announced at the PV CellTech event in March] has been quite good but we remain focused on R&D for the time being. Costs remain on the high side with JNHM72 so we’re trying to push down on that to ensure we are competitive against the legacy products. The current goal is trying to get our second line in place, raising the performance level while reducing costs.

PV Tech: As you look to boost sales next year, do you think China can remain – given the slowdown evidenced by official stats – as important a PV market for Jinergy as it has been historically?

Dr. Liyou Yang: It is possible we might sell less to China next year. People have had quite optimistic expectations for Q4 2019 deployment but there is the planning and then there is the execution, the two may not come together – the final numbers may not be as good as people have thought

However, China remains the largest solar market worldwide and even if there are fluctuations, Jinergy represents a relatively small fraction of the total market share. We also concentrate fairly significantly on the Shanxi province, which we expect to do relatively well in the overall Chinese market. So even if there is a slight drop in domestic sales for us next year, we think the share will still be significant.

PV Tech: If overseas business does become even more central for Jinergy next year, what role do you expect Europe and the US will play in your shipments?

Dr. Liyou Yang: This year is only the second we are selling to Europe but we can definitely see it growing. Many of the countries there are growing although they are not alone; price decreases are stimulating the market environment worldwide so we see growth everywhere. In Europe we are looking at all major markets and we are gradually entering Germany, Spain and Ukraine in particular – we’ve already supplied around 100MW this year to the last of the three.

As for the US, we are not currently doing anything there but we’re still looking at ways in which to find business, whether through an O&M partnership or otherwise. We are also considering our options in terms of building factories overseas to avoid [the US’] Section 201 import tariffs. We’re doing a fair bit of business in India so a possibility could be that we build a factory there, either by ourselves or in partnership with someone else.

PV Tech: How important will India’s solar market remain for Jinergy going forward?

Dr. Liyou Yang: India is currently our big overseas focus. Over the past three years we’ve established a very good reputation among the country’s major players and customers. And since India is still poised to do well in solar in the coming years, we believe we’ve earned the trust to ensure we can continue to serve the market well.

Elsewhere in Asia, we’re opportunistically looking at all the major Southeast markets at the moment, with plans for direct deals with customers but also EPC companies who are doing business in those countries.

PV Tech: What do you think will be the top challenges for Jinergy next year, as it strives to outrun competitors and retain a strong foothold in the global solar market?

Dr. Liyou Yang: The biggest challenge in my mind is uncertainty, the doubts around how the world market will be collectively performing in 2020. Given the drastic cost decreases we’ve seen, particularly on the mono-PERC side, the key question for me is whether all this rapidly rising production capacity can be fully utilised.

For Jinergy, 2020 is going to be an important year for our continued R&D efforts around heterojunction. By the end of the year, we hope we’ll be able to reach our internal goals and targets for the expansion into this new innovation but we’ll have to see what the results are.

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GCL-SI bags A bankability score at PV ModuleTech 2019

China-headquartered GCL-SI was among the module makers recognised at this year’s PV ModuleTech, arranged in Malaysia by PV Tech’s publisher Solar Media.

The ‘Solar Module Super League’ (SMSL) member was one of four firms scooping up an ‘A’ rating under a new ranking for module manufacturers, unveiled during the two-day trade show in Penang’s G-Hotel Gurney this week.

PV Tech’s market research team awarded the score to GCL-SI – as well as several of its peers in its module making segment – after five years’ worth of painstaking data collection and module market research.

GCL-SI’s ‘A’ rating was meant to reflect its performance on the manufacturing front – shipment volumes and other parameters – but also the state of its finances, to help guide solar developers, EPCs and investors assessing the firm or other potential candidates as module suppliers.

For GCL-SI, the distinction comes as it presses ahead with efforts to ramp up business overseas. In late April, the firm revealed its module shipments beyond China reached the 2.3GW threshold in 2018, a 52.9% hike on 2017 records.

The manufacturer is working to keep up the momentum this year. By the end of 2019, according to the plans laid out in April, overseas shipments should account for 80% of the total. Target regions include Western Europe, Japan and South Korea.

The firm’s CEO, Eric Luo, caught up with PV Tech at this year’s Intersolar Europe edition. Speaking at the Munich event, he predicted China would witness 25GW worth of solar installations in the second half of the year, triggering a jump in module prices.

“In the second half [of the year] the module price will go up 10-15% easily. China will install 25GW in the second half of the year,” Luo told this publication.

“EPCs need to be securing supply now and making sure delivery will be on time. I’d repeat what I said at Davos: the party is over for cheap modules. That price rise will begin in H2. Around 5GW was installed in the first quarter and I’d expect perhaps 5GW in Q2 and now 25GW in the rest of the year,” GCL-SI’s CEO added.

The firm’s latest financial reports show full-year revenues were down 22% between 2017 (RMB 14.44 billion) and 2018 (RMB 11.1 billion). Net profits, meanwhile, soared by 89.16% year-on-year, reaching RMB34.9 million (US$5.2 million).

See here for more information on the agenda, speakers and debate themes of this year’s PV ModuleTech, held in Penang on 22-23 October 2019 

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Downstream solar meets upstream innovation at PV ModuleTech 2019

Bifacial module yields, manufacturer bankability probing and quality benchmarking strategies have all taken centre stage at this year’s edition of PV ModuleTech in Malaysia.

Operators from the upstream and downstream end of the solar scale descended on the two-day conference this week, organised by PV Tech publisher Solar Media, to check the pulse of a fast-changing PV module landscape.

Developers and EPCs gathered at Penang’s G-Hotel Gurney were offered a window into the financial and manufacturing health of the PV module makers they rely on to equip ever-larger installations, at a time when solar roll-out is booming worldwide.

PV Tech’s Head of Market Research Finlay Colville went on stage on Tuesday morning to introduce the PV ModuleTech Bankability Ratings, the result of five years’ worth of exhaustive data collection and module market research.

Conference attendees were presented with a credit agency-like ranking of the world’s leading module manufacturers, which were assessed based on their manufacturing performance – shipment volumes and other parameters – but also the state of their balance sheet.

The new Bankability Ratings – catering to developers and EPCs working on non-residential 50MW-plus projects in 2020 and 2021 – will help downstream PV players shortlist module suppliers before they resort to expensive third-party due diligence specialists, said Solar Media CEO David Owen.

“We’re trying to encourage a dialogue between developers, EPCs and the technology,” Owen added. “Engaging with module innovation and understanding the product and how it fits with sites will have a huge impact on yields and by extension, financials.”

Realistic yield data to move beyond bifacial hype

PV ModuleTech 2019, the fourth edition of the series, also opened the floor to module makers themselves. First Solar, LONGi Solar, Hanwha Q Cells, Jinko Solar, Jinergy, Seraphim, Risen Energy and Talesun were among those shedding light on their latest product and research milestones.

Conversations on the sidelines of the Penang conference evidenced the scrutiny these firms face over financial decisions is not letting up. A downstream operator shared, for instance, concerns over manufacturers’ increasing propensity to delist from stock exchanges.   

Elsewhere on the show, bifacial stole a considerable share of the spotlight. Research heavyweights including the PV Evolution Labs and National Renewable Energy Laboratory went on stage to help fill the information gaps of developers and EPCs contemplating a move to two-sided modules.

At a time of sweeping bifacial boom forecasts – with consultancy Wood Mackenzie predicting the market will surge ten-fold to 21GW by 2024 – various PV ModuleTech speakers tried instead to paint a realistic picture of bifacial yields, based on the real-world performance data emerging so far. 

Subsequent talk on the conference floor touched upon the specific markets bifacial will be a better fit with. Some pondered whether two-sided modules could, given their suitability for high-refraction environments, unlock PV growth in Scandinavia and other of the world’s cloudier, snowier regions.

Geopolitics also found their way into the discussions behind the scenes at PV ModuleTech 2019, with questions raised over how the US’ u-turn with Section 201 trade barriers – extending them this month to previously exempt bifacial modules – will impact global module trade flows.

This week’s formal launch of PV ModuleTech Bankability Ratings in Penang came after the system was introduced by Colville over a six-part article series, laying out the steps followed with data collection and the methodology underpinning the metrics.

See here for more information on the agenda, speakers and debate themes of this year’s PV ModuleTech, held in Penang on 22-23 October 2019 

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PV ModuleTech: The need for accurate performance measurements

Recently, PV-Tech took the opportunity to catch up with Erik Bentschap Knook, Chief commercial officer at Eternalsun Spire and a key partner at the forthcoming PV ModuleTech 2019 in Penang.
 
We talked about some of the new industry trends in module manufacturing and technology, and how Eternalsun Spire has been working to address these trends. 

What have been key industry trends in the sector this past year and how has Eternalsun Spire addressed these trends?

Erik Bentschap Knook: “A major key trend this year is that the industry is becoming more aware of PV module performance outside of “Standard Test Conditions”. Temperature related and short term degradation effects like LID/ LeTID get much more attention from PV manufacturers. This is mainly driven by the downstream market which is quickly becoming more quality aware. Especially, temperature related performance parameters like temperature coefficients gain more importance as they have a strong effect on yield in different regions. Measuring temperature coefficients accurately has been a challenge for PV industry and recent round robins show up to 10% uncertainty. In some cases, every 10% of measurement uncertainty leads to 1% of yield loss every year.

Our mission is to contribute to the growth of solar industry by providing the most accurate performance measurements to reduce the industry’s safety margins. Through smaller safety margins, less money is left on the table, which will be key to protect profit margins in this price competitive industry. Over the past year, Eternalsun Spire developed a dedicated testing process to decrease measurement uncertainty of temperature coefficients by 50%.”

So, how can Eternalsun Spire decrease measurement uncertainty of temperature coefficients and how is that different for high efficiency modules?

“Uncertainty in measuring temperature coefficients is driven by solar simulator light quality and unstable, non-uniform temperature control. With the introduction of high efficiency modules, many sun simulators are inadequate to measure the power output accurately. They have too short of a light pulse and do not have the UV and IR spectrum that is required. On top of that many traditional set-ups cannot control and especially stabilize temperature. The two effects combined lead to very inaccurate results.  

At Eternalsun Spire we developed a system and testing method with the goal to decrease measurement uncertainty of temperature coefficients. Unlike traditional test set ups, we introduce an accurate way to measure temperature coefficients, achieving reduction of safety margin by half. The set up combines the Spire Single Long Pulse laboratory flasher with a temperature control chamber which is placed on top of the flasher. The system has 270ms Single Long Pulse duration and extended spectrum from 300nm to 1200nm according to IEC 60904-9 ed.3 to test performance parameters of existing and future high efficiency modules. The temperature chamber enables 10-85C temperature range with -/+ 1C temperature uniformity, which is extremely uniform and can be held exactly stable.”

How is Eternalsun Spire involved in bifacial PV module testing & characterization?

“At Eternalsun Spire, we have two active members within the IEC TC82 WG2, in charge of IEC 60904-1 standard regarding IV measurements of bifacial PV devices and we have actively contributed to its development by conducting scientific research on single side illumination vs double side illumination test methods for bifacial commercial size PV modules. We are also participating in an inter-laboratory Round Robin for bifacial PV module measurements at OdinSpire, our bifacial-ready test laboratory in the harbor of Rotterdam.

In addition, we recently published a joined article with CEA INES with insights on how to accurately measure the efficiency of bifacial HJT modules. We are proud that leading R&D institutes have recently decided for our single long pulse technology, as it allows them to do a real measurement of even the highest efficiency technologies, including bifacial PV, without need of correction methods required for shorter pulses, which add uncertainty to the maximum power measurement.”

How can Eternalsun Spire help module buyers make informed purchasing decisions?

“We suggest module buyers to challenge the manufactures and become more aware of the quality of the selected modules. Eternalsun Spire can provide the tools and application knowledge to energy companies, EPCs, installers to do supplier and product evaluation for their PV projects. For this purpose, we set up OdinSpire, a quality inspection PV lab in Rotterdam harbor in the Netherlands. At OdinSpire we support module buyers to test the quality and power output of imported modules before installation. We perform a wide range of quality testing services such as performance at STC, temperature coefficients, energy rating, LeTID.” 

We noticed you made a slight name change. Can you elaborate why?

“We decided to merge the two brand names as we are the combination of an innovative, young company – Eternal Sun – and an industry recognized name with broad experience company – Spire Solar. This combination creates a unified environment to keep developing innovative and high quality solutions for our customers.”

What are you looking forward to hearing about at PV ModuleTech 2019?

“PV ModuleTech is a great platform to meet with key players from the PV module value chain. The conference gives us the opportunity to discuss with a wide range of industry experts and further improve our solutions for quality control of existing and future PV module technologies.”

 

There is still time to attend the PV ModuleTech next week. Click on the link here to register to attend.

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Solar panel suppliers fixated on power gains, but is the industry really benefiting?

Turn back the clock to 2012, and the PV sector had gone through an initial growth-related technology shake-out that can largely be seen today in c-Si technologies having 95% of market-share, and only one viable thin-film supplier (First Solar).

After the 2012 PV stock-market crash, the industry went into cost-reduction mode and then product optimization. This optimization phase centred on utility-scale modules moving from 60-cell to 72-cell as the norm, and module design moving from legacy 2-busbar to 5 busbars.

In terms of product variation across the c-Si segment, things were relatively stable and designers of PV plants could choose between 60 and 72-cell module suppliers without having to worry too much about form/fit/function. In reality, plant design for c-Si modules could be left to decide on final supplier-of-choice when construction began.

The major concern for developers, EPCs, O&M’s, asset managers and portfolio owners, at this time, was mainly based around the liquidity of the various module suppliers offering these 72-cell products to the market; would the supplier be around in 25 years to honour the warranty?

Fast-forward to 2019, and the landscape for c-Si modules could not look more different. This article discusses how PV module supply has now become a marketing and trade-show related game of numbers (specifically, a Watt-peak DC bragging-rights platform); what is driving this, and why is it perhaps causing more concern to the very grouping it is meant to impress – the end-user.

The c-Si upgrade frenzy

The introduction of PERC cells – and the move from multi to mono as the cell substrate standard – has undoubtedly been the catalyst behind the plethora of process line changes across ingot-to-module stages that leads us to the extreme diversification in c-Si modules being offered to the market today.

The range of options is not just in looking at the different companies offering products to the market, but can be seen through the growing module types offered by any one of the multi-GW c-Si module suppliers dominating the industry today.

It is almost impossible to keep track of the c-Si module options being supplied today, and if anyone does manage this somewhat academic feat now, everything is likely to change again before the end of the year.

Being an investor today into large-scale utility-solar sites has never been more challenging and risky.

Rear surface passivation (PERC) was the first major process flow change to be implemented by the c-Si cell segment for over a decade. For many of the c-Si cell producers active in 2015-2019, it was the first process flow change they had ever undertaken, and the first they had owned, since cell lines were constructed using equipment suppliers that were tried and tested by the industry. For the new entrants in this time period, new lines were by default PERC (if installed as mono).

The immediate success of PERC (and the obvious efficiency gains seen compared to Al-BSF) basically gave Chinese cell producers the confidence to do anything else that would add to the Watt-peak figures printed on datasheets; and there was no shortage of options waiting to be unleashed, on both front and rear sides of the cells.

Furthermore, we need to add in the shift to bifacial variants, half-cut cell designs, and cell/module changes including multi-busbar arrangements. One could go on and on. Anything that adds to the module power rating is now fair game.

The results have been extremely impressive. Back in 2013, the world was full of 240W 60-cell p-type modules, and rooftops and fields alike utilized this mainstream supply channel. Today, state-of-the-art p-type and n-type designs are trending in the 400-450W range plus.

The focus is certainly on Watt-dc powers at STC, and much of the extra push for power is coming not from real cell efficiency gains, but by simply increasing the size of the module (larger wafers or more cells). Therefore, the real monetary gain is less pronounced, and in many cases, costs are simply then passed on to the balance-of-systems side of things. 

Indeed, changes can also affect the role tracker companies play in this respect, as they need to ready for variations in modules and how this impacts on their unique supply-chains.

However, change in manufacturing comes with its own set of challenges, not simply by the manufacturer in having to ramp up new tools every few months, but most notably in the bill-of-materials employed and control of sub-contractors and OEMs that have been critical for module shipments targets of almost all leading c-Si players today.

c-Si PV module BoM’s, specifications and suppliers seem to change more often than cell phone offerings these days. However, while cell phones have a shelf-life of 2-3 years at most, PV modules (especially for utility-scale sites) are meant to be warrantied for 25-plus years. Outlined in this way, one can see instantly that change is not always good – especially if the customer is not ready for it, or it simply causes them problems.

If things were bad enough, the industry is currently undergoing a wafer-driven change mechanism that is potentially complicating things even more (the push to larger wafer sizes). Coupled with the half-cut cell design growth (6-inch cells are cut in half and then assembled as 144 half-size arrangements), this is now causing packaged module dimensions to become a non-standard parameter.

From an installer standpoint (rooftop or ground), this is certainly not good news. If module dimensions are staring to creep up, then where do I stand in 3-5 years if I need that form/fit/function to replace faulty product? Structure providers are also impacted, with the unenviable task of adapting to different non-standard module sizes and multiple interfaces on a regular basis.

Product availability therefore now becomes the gating factor in the warranty, and even more than the risk associated with module suppliers being in business 10+ years down the line. The chances of any PV module supplier having a hidden stash of warranty-ready PV modules covering the myriad of types supplied in the past 3-5 years is not reality. The buck will stop with the site owner, and any third-party stakeholder that is mandated to sustain site yields at agreed levels.

This characterizes the reality of the wafer size debate ongoing today. For further background, have a read through the article on PV-Tech recently, Why are monocrystalline wafers increasing in size? Larger wafers ultimately do force module producers to increase dimensions of panels. The use of half-cut cells also allows cramming more cells (over and above 144) onto a single panel, again changing module dimensions. The days of standardized 72-cell modules appear to be well and truly in the past.

The snowball effect

It would seem we are now into a vicious circle of module-power bragging-rights taking priority over practical reality and long-term investment returns, and this is entirely a manufacturer-driven phenomenon, from wafer size to cell design to module production and supply.

Let’s restate the main issue at play here: investors want to maximize returns over 25-30 years with minimum risk. It is all about maximizing returns, not appearing to save a few pennies on capex during site build based on a higher-spec module.

Ask any bank or solar site investor if they would trade 10W on a 400W panel for audit-trail security in BoM’s used across multi-stages of a 500MW site, drop-in replacement availability in the future, and product testing/validation that minimizes the risk of failure or underperformance, and they would bite your hand off. Experienced players have learned that manufacturing stability and reliable and durable products are the key drivers behind long-term degradation and minimizing total cost-of-ownership over plant lifetimes.

However, the nameplate power spec game appears to be growing today, with everyone joining in. The fear I guess is that a 380W panel will simply look outdated, if all competitors are pushing 420W-plus equivalents? In some ways, one can sympathise with the sales teams and the need to supply what appears to be market-competitive product at any given time.

If quality could be benchmarked, the world would be a different place.

Module quality and reliability should always be ranked above module power ratings. It seems such an obvious thing to say, and no-one that has ever purchased a PV module would dispute this for one second. So what is the problem?

Perhaps it all comes back to quality having no clear industry-accepted metric (like module power rating), and therefore quality is something that can be interpreted, marketed and benchmarked in many different ways. Just look at the 50-plus module suppliers claiming to be on one of the Tier-1 type listings these days, and thinking this means they have quality product that is bankable?

Indeed, during the past couple of months, since PV-Tech introduced the PV ModuleTech Bankability Ratings, one of the most-asked questions by the industry was: How do you measure module quality? Can suppliers be benchmarked on quality?

It is an extremely difficult parameter to benchmark, as quality is by nature qualitative, and has no scoring mechanism to fall back on. Firms performing quality audits and reliability testing have bespoke means of ranking suppliers, but it is often fab or BoM or module type specific. Such schemes may work, if fixed supply chains existed with limited varieties of modules. However, as discussed earlier, the opposite exists within the industry today.

Therefore, quality and reliability testing becomes case-specific and valid for one product at one point in time. As soon as anything changes (materials supply for manufacturing, process tooling, wafer or cell supply channels, assembly location), then everything needs to be started again from scratch – or should be!

This is the real problem for institutional investors. Undertake any due-diligence and risk-mitigation process for site supply at any point in time, and it is valid almost only for that project, or indeed the first phase of a mega-sized, multi-phase-build project. 

Move 3-6 months on in time, and the entire exercise has to be done again, as more than likely, the makeup of the modules from the same supplier will have changed – albeit with higher power ratings being claimed.

One can only imagine the cost element to all of this. Constantly engaging with IE’s; factory audits per phase of project; certification and testing every time module parameters change. Surely this is not ideal, particularly if the modules won’t be around in 2-3 years if anything needs to be replaced on-site?

In some ways, this explains why factory auditors, reliability and testing laboratories, and certification houses have never been so busy.

PV ModuleTech 2019 full of talks on all these themes

The PV ModuleTech 2019 meeting in Penang next week (22-23 October 2019) will consist of talks covering all the issues above, and will hear from companies driving module changes, those trying to qualify and inspect them, new materials and suppliers feeding the factories, and – most importantly – developers, EPCs and investors that are trying to make sense of everything. 

In contrast to the talks from c-Si module suppliers relating to these themes, First Solar will also present on the company’s manufacturing approach that is unique now within the industry being a single-product offering that avoids almost all of the issues discussed in this article for c-Si module supply.

There is still time to attend the event next week. Click on the link here to register to attend.

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PVEL highlights industry trends and challenges in module manufacturing and technology

The third PV ModuleTech conference takes place in Penang, Malaysia on 22-23 October 2019. One of the key companies participating in the PV ModuleTech event this year is PV Evolution Labs (PVEL). PVEL provides extended reliability and performance tests to evaluate PV modules for the downstream market and produces the annual PV Module Reliability Scorecard. 

Recently, PV-Tech took the opportunity to catch up with Tristan Erion-Lorico, Head of PV Module Business at PVEL and a key partner at the forthcoming PV ModuleTech 2019 event in Penang this month.
 
We talked about some of the new industry trends in module manufacturing and technology, and what attendees of PV ModuleTech 2019 can expect to hear from the company’s presentation at the event.

What changes have you seen in the industry since PV ModuleTech last year?

Tristan Erion-Lorico: ”Since last year’s PV ModuleTech, bifacial modules have catapulted from a niche offering into a mainstream product. While most attendees of last year’s event anticipated growth, few expected the technology to gain so much traction in such a short time. Instead, we’ve seen manufacturers rapidly expand bifacial capacity and bring new products to market. We’re witnessing the development of several 100 MW+ bifacial solar power plants at many sites around the world. 

 At PV Evolution Labs (PVEL), I’ve observed this trend in two ways. First, more and more downstream companies are asking us for bifacial reliability and performance data. Second, more manufacturers are signing up to test bifacial products, and in some cases they’re testing multiple bifacial products with us. Our bifacial testing queue demonstrates that developers and investors still lack important validation and technical diligence data that drives financing for bifacial projects.

In addition to the growth of the bifacial market, another change I’ve observed is the staggering number of new products in mass production from some of the biggest manufacturers.  A few years ago, a module buyer could choose monocrystalline or polycrystalline, 3 bus bar, 60 or 72 cell.  Now there is full cell, half cut, different cell sizes, different numbers of bus bars, n-type and p-type and different interconnection technologies, plus of course bifacial versions of many of those.  The quantity of product iterations has many developers scratching their heads and looking to PVEL for data on the reliability of those various products.”

What do you see as key challenges for bifacial modules?

“Modelling accuracy and site design optimization remain important challenges for the bifacial market. Without bridging these gaps in our understanding of bifacial performance and reliability, the industry will not capture the full value of this innovative technology. The recent bifacial boom has been exciting but we’re still only scratching the surface of the technology’s potential. 

Modelling bifacial performance remains difficult due to a high degree of uncertainty around expected energy generation. There is very little well-validated, independent data that quantifies rear side gain. On the reliability side, we face lack of certainty around degradation rates. Do the back and front side of the module have the same degradation rates across all degradation modes? IEs need more data to address this uncertainty. In the meantime, the industry must contend with overly conservative energy yield forecasts and financial models – it is likely that developers are leaving money on the table. 

There is also considerable uncertainty around bifacial site design optimization. We don’t yet know the value of investing in specialized technologies to increase bifacial gain. When optimally installed, will bifacial modules drive enough additional energy yield to justify more expensive site designs? For example, does it make sense to use engineered ground covers that improve albedo, and what should the ground coverage ratio be? What tracker design is optimal – and how much of a difference does it make? As an industry, we are beginning to understand the implications of these site design changes, but more work is needed.”  

We are seeing the transition to larger wafers and therefore larger modules. What are the challenges associated with moving to larger module sizes?

“Compatibility with existing balance-of-system equipment and legacy systems is an important challenge that comes with moving to a larger wafers and therefore larger modules. Certain racking and tracking systems have strict specifications with regard to frame size and mounting hole location, so larger modules may require redesigned mounting systems. Likewise, most new, larger modules will not be backwards compatible with products that are operating in the field today. This will be a challenge for site owners and operators as well as manufacturers: How will manufacturers support warranties for smaller sizes if they no longer produce the products that must be replaced? The challenge of module replacement underscores the importance of selecting a high-quality, reliable product during the procurement process. 

While this transition to larger wafers and modules is already underway, the industry has not settled on a standard for cell and subsequent module size. The manufacturing equipment in use by different manufacturers today have varying limitations, so different wafer and module sizes are being implemented in different factories around the world.  The result is system design challenges for sites that will be installed in 2020 and beyond. There are no standard dimensions that developers can rely on for crystalline modules. With so many different available dimensions – and SKUs – it can be difficult to select the right module to design for.”

You are going to be increasing the number of tests in future scorecards, why is this necessary?

“PVEL’s PV Module Reliability Scorecard is based on results from our Product Qualification Program (PQP) for PV modules – it’s our comprehensive suite of performance and reliability tests. The PQP is updated annually to support PV module buyers and investors conducting technical due diligence. This year, we added new tests for backsheet durability, LeTID and microcrack sensitivity, but we also removed some tests and updated others. Our next Scorecard will address these changes. 

Annual PQP updates are critical for the program to stay relevant to the global downstream PV buying community. Manufacturer’s product roadmaps are more fluid and dynamic than ever before, and changes to production processes and bills of materials can have quality ramifications. We respond to feedback from our downstream partners and the broader industry at large about the reliability and performance issues they’re experiencing the field, and we update our program to ensure those issues are captured. 

Regular, frequent updates differentiate our PQP from industry standard certifications. Updating IEC standards can take years, and we are proud to contribute to that process. But new technologies are coming out at break-neck speed, and PV module buyers want to start using the latest products right away. Our PQP gives buyers and investors confidence in the quality of new technologies and innovations.”

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PV ModuleTech 2019 to explain why only four module suppliers are AA Bankability Rated today

PV ModuleTech 2019 takes place in Penang, Malaysia on 22-23 October 2019. During this event, I will be giving a 45 minute presentation on the new PV ModuleTech Bankability Ratings, focusing on benchmarking the 14 module suppliers that have rating grades of A or B, and explaining why the other several hundred module suppliers today globally are speculative buys for large-scale utility PV projects.

Within this talk, I will address one of the main questions I have received during the past few weeks, since the full methodology on the PV ModuleTech Bankability ratings was outlined across six articles on PV-Tech, starting here, and ending here.

The specific question centres on why only four module suppliers are in the top-rated category today for module suppliers: AA. (Recall that there are no PV module suppliers today meeting the requirements of the highest rating band of AAA.)

Often, the questions were along the lines of: why is company X not AA-rated? Or more pertinently: why is my company not in the top category today? Of course, many other people simply wanted to know who the 14 companies are with A or B grades, or where the rankings had placed the company they were representing. This broader question will be addressed over time, but for now, the key issue is to provide some explanation on why only four module suppliers are in the highest-grade band of AA.

For those wanting the detailed explanation for this – in addition to the answers to most of the other questions highlighted above – the best option is definitely to be at the PV ModuleTech event in Penang in two weeks from now (22-23 October).

In this article, I will address the main factors surrounding the including of JinkoSolar, First Solar, LONGi Solar and Canadian Solar as the most bankable module suppliers in the sector today.

Manufacturing and financial strength are both essential for bankability

During the series of six feature articles on PV-Tech, I discussed many times that bankability has two key elements: manufacturing, within which the highest weighting is applied to trailing 24 months of module shipment volumes to commercial (non-residential) market segments; and secondly, financial, based on converting Altman-Z scores to a PV-specific 0-10 ranking scale.

This removes the several hundred PV module suppliers that have sub-GW shipment volumes, many of whom operate typically with varying capacity utilization rates, serve a select group of residential-friendly markets, or operate as third-party OEM outlets without any credible own-brand status. It also removes companies (many of whom do have multi-GW shipment volume credentials in the past 3-5 years) but have dreadful financial health and are essentially technically-bankrupt.

While most people tracking the PV industry are long-accustomed to hearing many PV module suppliers shouting about being on one of the various tier-1-type ranking tables that have been in existence within the industry for many years, anyone buying PV modules today for a 100-MW-plus utility-scale solar site is generally only looking at a subset of between five and ten companies.

Therefore, even without doing the full analysis, it is fairly simple to draw a line through all but a few dozen module suppliers. The beauty of the new PV ModuleTech Bankability Ratings output is that these select companies can be benchmarked across different manufacturing and financial strengths and weaknesses.

Only by doing this, can it be seen why a select group of just four PV module suppliers (JinkoSolar, First Solar, LONGi Solar and Canadian Solar) have higher bankability ratings than everyone else.

Overview of what is differentiating the top-4 today

There are certain qualitative pre-requisites that apply, which preclude many of the leading top 20-30 module suppliers from being top-four AA-rated today.

One of these relates to the cumulative non-commercial shipment volumes, going back over a trailing 24 month period (at the end of any given quarter, when the ratings are updated for all companies). This is entirely valid, as consistent and repeat shipments by quarter over an extended time period is one of the most credible means of qualifying market-winners and those that have been consistently approved for large-scale project financing.

The criteria applied in the PV ModuleTech Bankability analysis also classes module shipments as own-brand only (and not OEM supplied, or in the cases where multi-GW capacity owners sublet facilities for tolling). Companies operating predominantly in this mode cannot be considered bankable from a brand perspective, although of course they may have a very workable business plan that satisfies company shareholders or investors.

To be included in the AA-ratings band, multi-GW of annual shipments over the past few years is a must. In fact, the threshold is nearer to 5 GW (utility-specific) these days. However, not all the 3-5 GW annual shipment suppliers qualify of course, as there is the financial aspect to factor in.

Indeed, the second pre-requisite is that financial stability with good financial health is also in place going back 24 months. So much confusion still prevails in the market on this issue today, not helped by companies often simply quoting turnover (revenues, often also of parent entities) as being the metric of value in terms of bankability. However, operating health is a blend of profitability, assets, liabilities, working capital, liquidity, retained earnings, leverage, equity value and sales generation levels.

It has been shown time-and-again that companies operating with strong revenues in the PV industry (especially Chinese firms) can also be carrying excessive debt, losing money every quarter, and having limited working capital to do anything to reverse inevitably bankruptcy. Indeed, when one looks at Chinese module suppliers that are PV-sector specific, only a small handful have operated with consistent and stable financial metrics, and absent of red-flags or risk in terms of ongoing operations.

In this context, for most of the GW-scale Chinese PV module suppliers, shipment volumes have to be very high (and consistently high every quarter), with operating margins positive, given that financial strength is likely contingent on having a non-module-based revenue stream. More on this below that mainly explains why JinkoSolar, Canadian Solar and LONGi Solar are the sole (Chinese-run) representatives in the AA-ratings band today.

Now, let’s look at the four companies and why each is qualifying in the AA-rated band today for PV ModuleTech Bankability.

JinkoSolar

Having operated for some time with downstream activities, Jinko is now a fully-fledged pure-play PV module producer/supplier, with a remarkably simple business model that can be summarised as follows.

Jinko’s business today is all about module supply growth, investing in having full in-house vertical integration (now all mono prioritized) across ingot-to-module stages. Profitability (operating) therefore relies upon having a 15-20% delta when comparing blended module ASPs with cost-of-good-sold. Keeping operations in check, this translates to an operating margin or around 5%.

There is very little wiggle-room here. Revenues come from selling modules. Therefore, the higher the volumes, the higher the earnings each quarter.

The model works perfectly so long as volumes are high (more than 10 GW annual shipments, growing to 20 GW in the next few years), and costs are keep within target bounds (run factories flat out and hope that polysilicon stays sub-10$/kg going forward). The higher the premium for sales, the better the final earnings are.

Jinko qualifies as AA-rated mainly from its very high module shipment volumes, not by having financial performance that would alone jump out as a special feature.

If shipment volumes drop (sales pipelines slow down) or costs hit any problems at all, then the company would lose its AA-rating grade. Indeed, the business model means that when things are good, they are very good; shipping as much as possible when profitable is great; doing the same when gross margins slip is conversely bad if doing so quarter-on-quarter.

For now however, Jinko does remain the only Chinese PV module supplier (ever) that seems to have worked out how to be master of this business model. To do this, you need to be one step ahead of all your competitors in terms of markets to serve, quality levels to supply, and technologies to invest in. Ultimately, this differentiates Jinko from most other Chinese module suppliers that prioritized leading shipment ranking position over having any long-term plan to stay there.

While Jinko is the only company today to have excelled in module production/supply pure-play operations, the other two Chinese-headquartered module suppliers to have AA-ratings owe their inclusion (as AA) to having other highly profitable non-module-sales revenue streams.

Canadian Solar

While Jinko sets the gold-standard in terms of c-Si module supply operations, Canadian Solar has a similarly unique position as possibly the only PV module supplier to have successfully combined having dual upstream/downstream strategies that work at the same time.

This goal has been the Achilles heel of so many PV companies over the years, with many of them wrongly thinking that the skill set involved in being a profitable module producer within the sector somehow automatically qualifies them to have similar business acumen when it comes to PV plant investment and market-trading of completed assets.

Inclusion as AA-rated for Canadian comes from having regularly been a top-ranked PV module supplier by volume in the past few years, having one of the more profitable module manufacturing operations (best-in-class typically in terms of being flexible for in-house/third-party component supply), and being smart enough to operate its downstream business at arms-length.

This final point turns out to be key. The mistake many companies seem to make in running dual upstream/downstream operations is trying to couple the strategies into one. This manifests itself often by efforts to grow project pipelines, as a means to create a module supply channel, rather than seeing downstream projects as what they ultimately are: an asset class that is there to be traded as and when market circumstances allow.

Many companies have fallen foul of this trap. Only a few – most notably Canadian Solar – have decoupled upstream from downstream operations. In effect, this allows module operations to be set up optimally (on the basis of selling modules as value-added in their own rights), while it frees up decision-making on project development and secondary asset sales through a different part of the company that for all purposes is fully decoupled from module sales.

In fact, often with Canadian Solar in the past few years, module sales teams were completely unaware of the project pipelines held by the company’s project development teams. While this may sound to many as a company with communication problems, it is the ideal situation. It frees up the downstream operations to make the best commercial decisions, including whose modules (in-house or third-party) are best to optimize site returns on a case-by-case basis.

Ultimately company management can then decide what to do with owned assets, selling them if the company needs cash in the short-term, or if market circumstances make asset sales preferential. Having this revenue stream option, while simultaneously being among the most profitable of the Chinese multi-GW module producers, is what merits Canadian Solar’s inclusion in the top-4 grouping today, although it should be pointed out that the company is the most at risk of moving to A-rated status (based mainly on shipment volumes being some way off the sheer volume of market-leader Jinko).

LONGi Solar

The third of the three Chinese-headquartered module supply majors featuring as AA-rated suppliers is LONGi, and the reasons for its inclusion are different to the other two companies outlined above.

LONGi is a special case today within the industry, having a highly profitable revenue stream coming from another part of the PV manufacturing value-chain; namely, wafer sales. The growth trajectory of the company has been clear to see over the past 4-5 years, with LONGi implementing highly-ambitious and completely-successful mono ingot/wafer capacity expansion phases within China that have been the catalyst to the whole sector moving from p-type multi to p-type mono as the mainstream technology offering.

However, while simply managing the process of site construction and ramp-up at such a grandiose level is highly laudable, the key has managed to retain cost-control and margins (at a time when component ASPs have been on a steep downward trend). This has been the basis of LONGi’s operating strength, driving the company’s valuation to levels much higher than would have been possible from a stand-alone module supply business model.

The resulting financial strength of the company (from its wafer business), coupled with having annual module shipments now moving into the 10-GW-territory (and increasingly more each year outside China), is what sees LONGi firmly in the AA-rating band as a module supplier today.

As a case-study, LONGi is unique in having a highly profitable PV manufacturing business unit (for wafers), and remains in an enviable situation as virtually all its cell manufacturing customer-base rushes to have mono-PERC based capacity to remain competitive.

This is allowing increased investments into cell and module capacity, as one of the few companies today with cell/module expansion plans that exceed 20-GW and are credible.

However, ongoing favouritism from the investment community (retaining valuation and facilitating expansion plans) is not without risk, in particular from wafer ASPs and the level to which the company can remain in control of this to the market.

It is a precarious position to be in, within the value-chain, if companies producing around you (polysilicon and cells in this case) are seeing a more challenging operating environment and prone to loss making with limited scope to return to profitability. At some point, the squeeze does happen, and margins get compressed to levels seen across the whole manufacturing sector; in particular, at each point where module pricing needs to have a downward adjustment to sustain investor returns in utility-scale solar.

Were it not for a highly-profitable wafer business, LONGi would not have the top-rated module supplier status is commands today. However, if module shipments move into the 10-20 GW annual level (as the company is planning for), and cost-control measures can be industry-leading here, then this situation would only be to the company’s advantage.

First Solar

The final company today with AA-rated module supplier status is First Solar, and is the only non Chinese-run company in this top grouping.

Indeed, the company is the only western-run PV company (across every PV manufacturing segment from polysilicon to modules) that can be considered a success-story today. In fact, this unique position is further emphasized when one looks forward over the next 2-3 years in terms of business booked at attractive levels of investment return. I will explain more on this below; however, while most PV manufacturers globally are consumed by filling order books for the next quarter.

First Solar is in the almost unheard-of territory in being sold-out for years ahead, at a time when new Series 6 panel factories are being fully ramped up.
There is not a single PV module supplier globally that would not love to be in this position today.

The success in moving from Series 4 to Series 6 and the billion-dollar investment in new factories with bespoke tooling is a strong part of First Solar’s inclusion at one of the four AA-rated module suppliers today. But, as I discussed above, module shipments alone are not sufficient to be highly rated. AA-rating (especially for any module supplier outside of JinkoSolar that is still commanding a significant GW-scale delta as the number-one by volume) needs finances to be strong, and in this regard, First Solar is in a different league to all other PV companies that rely heavily on module operations for their overall performance.

Any investor-based analysis on First Solar’s books over the past years shows consistent and well-managed operations, and decision-making in terms of upstream/downstream priorities, leading to the make-up of the company today that is focused again on profitable module supply (of Series 6) and the other complementary areas where First Solar has a value-added proposition in the geographies in which the company is strong.

First Solar has taken advantage perfectly with the opportunity that has arisen from the strong utility-drive for solar PV in the US, and much of the pipeline is effectively derisked in this way also. This makes the forward-looking issues (pertinent for the other AA-rated companies above) less questionable. In short, assuming ongoing business-as-usual – and the expected continued fast ramp of module supply from factories being ramped globally – First Solar will comfortably stay in the AA-rating grouping during the next couple of years. Whether the company again becomes the only supplier to be AAA-rated is more likely to depend on how just how profitable Series 6 manufacturing turns out to be in the end.

PV ModuleTech 2019 to explain other 10 A/B-rated module suppliers

For those attending PV ModuleTech 2019 in Penang on 22-23 October 2019, they will be able to hear my take on the other 10 leading PV module suppliers with A or B grades, and what merits their inclusion, what it would take for each to move up or down Bankability Rating grades, and where each company will be at risk going forward.

For anyone currently doing due-diligence on PV module selection for 50-MW-plus utility-scale projects in 2020 and 2021, hopefully this fully independent and unbiased overview will provide some issues they are either not known today (both from a positive and negative viewpoint); or my talk will simply offer valid benchmarking to internal conclusions already reached.

There are still a few remaining places to attend PV ModuleTech 2019 – click on the tabs here to access information on how to attend the event in Penang on 22-23 October 2019.

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EU backs bid to take CPV to mass production amid 29% efficiency claims

A solar PV technology claiming to have achieved 50% higher output than conventional systems in tests has bagged EU research money to speed up its move to large-scale production.

A €10.6 million (US$11.7 million) EU grant will help bankroll the setup of a European pilot assembly line for a concentrated PV (CPV) technology developed by Swiss start-up Insolight, following tests of more than a year across the continent.

Funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme will back the two-year HIPERION scheme, run by a 16-strong consortium led by Swiss research centre CSEM which includes the likes of Fraunhofer ISE, Mondragon Assembly, Argotech, ENGIE Laborelec and European universities.

HIPERION’s promoters claim to have recorded efficiency levels of 29% when Insolight’s systems were trialled pre-production, which they link to the use of planar optical micro-tracking to focus sunlight on multijunction solar cells installed atop conventional silicon backplanes.

“[An efficiency of] 29% is achieved within a planar concentrator. Thanks to micro-tracking, light is focused (~200 times) on small 1mm2 III-V/Ge solar cells,” Christophe Ballif, VP of Photovoltaics & Energy Systems at CSEM, explained when approached by PV Tech this week. According to him, the certified efficiency was even higher with smaller devices, reaching 36.4%.

“Most importantly the new generation also includes a backplane low-cost silicon modules. This means that the system will continue to work under diffuse or cloudy conditions, with the efficiency of silicon, and will still capture diffuse light on sunny days,” Ballif added.

CPV players in bid to turn the page after tough years

The rise of a new CPV-type proponent comes after tough years for players in the segment, as a failure to keep costs in check made large-scale success an unattainable prospect for many. HIPERION, Insolight’s CEO said in a statement this week, will try and bring the milestone closer by showcasing its technology to solar manufacturers at qualification tests and commercial pilot sites.

CSEM’s Ballif believes the technology’s viability was already evidenced by tests so far across various European locations. “First prototypes without Si backplane have been on the field, on 0.4m2 modules, showing robust tracking and conversion efficiency,” he says. Outdoors trials for over a year showed modules did not degrade, enduring winter conditions, heatwaves and storms, he adds.

Quizzed by this publication, Ballif claims no major technological weakness has emerged so far but concedes “a lot of work” remains necessary to optimise system optics, micro-tracking and find competitive assembly solutions. The consortium’s mix of researchers, module makers, actuator providers and others makes it well positioned to tackle all these challenges, he claims.

Show me your money

Pressed over how HIPERION will overcome the long-time nemesis of CPV schemes – uncompetitive levelised costs of energy (LCOEs) – Ballif declined to provide specifics for now. “We have our first estimates of LCOEs but we want to move forward with the project, which will give us a better estimation of the potential and the costs,” he said.

According to the CSEM VP, the HIPERION consortium has a particular avenue in mind for Insolight’s technology to start inching towards mass success. “The product will clearly not start addressing large solar parks, but focus first on space-constrained systems where there is much more value to efficiency,” he explained, pointing at rooftops as an example.

The technology, Ballif insisted, is a “different product” to what he described as “conventional” CPV predecessors. He added: “Besides, the technology involves a few module-level assembly steps, which can be “added” at the end of existing production lines, taking leverage of production capacities already in place. No complex cleanroom processes are required.”

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