The head of Germany’s Fraunhofer solar institute outlines the industry’s future in Europe and beyond

How do you see the global PV market developing? The market is developing in a very positive, rapid way. The reason is that due to production overcapacity in China, we have experienced an unbelievable decrease of solar price and costs in the past three years. You get large cost savings by replacing daytime electricity [generated by more expensive sources] with solar electricity. And this is, in my view, the main source of the rapid development of the world market.

Last year, the world market was about 36GW of newly installed PV, this year we expect 46GW a year, and if you compare this with the number of about 130GW globally installed, it means that in one year alone, we add more than 30% of the amount installed globally in the past 60 years.

I expect in 2020, we will have a world market of clearly above 100GW, and maybe as early as 2025 a market of 300GW a year onwards for many decades... In 2050, when PV electricity probably costs no more than $0.02-0.03 per kWh — if then we only have 10% of our electricity needs from PV, we would need to have about ten terawatts installed.

Will the shift away from Europe intensify? Five or six years ago, Europe was the lead market for solar installations. But this has been replaced by the Chinese market, which is now above 9GW a year, and by the US, which is expected to be 6GW a year. The Japanese market has picked up speed as well. So I expect in 2014, Europe might only be the number four worldwide. I don’t think this is bad or disappointing, because more important than the question “Where is the biggest market?” is the question “Where is the technology hub? From where do the new technologies come? From where do the new generations of PV production come?” It will be a big challenge to make sure that this comes from Europe.

Fraunhofer ISE is leading a project to create a multi-gigawatt PV factory in Europe. Why do you think there will be a market for that? In the past few years, we had a global overcapacity in PV production. About 60GW a year capacity was created, while the world market, even in 2014, is only 46GW. However, an interesting fraction of the 60GW annual production capacity is being decommissioned as we speak, because these plants are not able to produce at a cost-competitive price on the world market.

Therefore we have the phenomenon that the global production capacity is decreasing and simultaneously the global market is increasing. We expect a crossover point could occur between 2015 and 2016. This means very soon we will start to have an undersupply of the world market with PV modules. We should now plan which technology, which kind of new factories, will be able to produce modules in a cost-competitive way in the time frame 2017-18, because then there will be a real shortage. This is why we think now is the right moment to start building the new PV technology generation.

We have an interesting opportunity in Europe because we have developed new technology generations. That gives us a real possibility to leapfrog the PV technology further, to offer this to the world after we have formed our first new gigawatt factory in Europe — we call it xGWp. The idea is, of course, not to try to deliver PV modules only from Europe to the rest of the world, but to make this the type of production facility all over the world, in order to be able to produce the lowest-cost, most modern solar modules with highest energy-conversion efficiency.

SolarWorld is the only European manufacturer that survived, and it is struggling. What would the multi-gigawatt project do differently to have better chances? SolarWorld is a very dynamic company. But as an existing company, at the moment it has to go for what I would call incremental improvements in technology. For xGWp, we want to go further; we propose a combination of innovative wafer, cell and module technologies that allow for an important step forward in cost, efficiency and other characteristic parameters.

Fundamentally, it will be an important step forward in crystalline-silicon PV technology. In the first phase, we will establish a demo production line. The goal is 60-90MW annual capacity. If this line delivers cells and modules as we expect, we will start immediately after this validation to build up the xGWp factory to do this really on scale. In our most optimistic scenario we might be able to start full-scale production in 2017.

  • Eicke Weber, 64, has been head of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE) since 2006 and is professor of applied physics/solar energy at Albert-Ludwigs-University, Freiburg
  • He previously led the nanoscale science and engineering graduate group at the University of California, Berkeley; and was a visiting professor at Japan’s Tohoku and Kyoto universities
  • As the author of more than 600 publications, Weber won the 1994 Alexander von Humboldt Prize and the 2006 German Order of Merit, and is an honorary member of the Ioffe Physical Technical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences