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3Sun chairman says PV can learn lessons from microchip-makers

The PV sector has the potential to improve its production efficiency as consistently as the semiconductor industry has over the past four decades – but is currently on the wrong track to accomplish such a feat.

That is the claim of Andrea Cuomo, a veteran of the microchip business who is also chairman of thin-film PV specialist 3Sun.

The biggest danger for PV on the cost front is that many of its most powerful companies have locked themselves into technologies that have only a limited scope for further evolution, says Cuomo.

“Utilisation and production scale are important, but this industry needs to allow room for the emergence of new technologies, new production processes, new materials,” he says, referring to Asian manufacturers’ single-minded drive towards economies of scale.

“We’re coming to a point where I doubt existing technologies can deliver electricity much below $0.10/kWh.”

Cuomo is a 30-year veteran of the semiconductor business, and currently executive vice president for advanced systems technology and special projects at STMicroelectronics, the €10bn-a-year ($13bn) Geneva-based semiconductor giant.

In addition he is chairman of 3Sun, the thin-film PV manufacturer formed in 2010 by STMicroelectronics, Italy’s Enel Green Power and Japan’s Sharp. Last year 3Sun opened its first module plant in Sicily, where it has ramped production to about 200MW.

Cuomo says it is fair to apply some of the same thinking behind Moore’s Law – which in 1965 accurately predicted that the computing power of processing chips would double every 18 months – to PV cells.

But thus far, PV manufacturers have not shown themselves to have the same mettle as semiconductor makers – in part due to the sector’s technological fragmentation.

One of the most obvious candidates for improvement is on production efficiency, Cuomo says. “Despite advances in production-equipment and automation, this is one end of the PV business that very clearly has not yet been squeezed as it should be squeezed.”

But Stephan de Haan, principal PV analyst at IHS, warns the solar industry that it should be very careful about courting comparisons to the semiconductor sector – and particularly Moore’s Law.

The scope for lowering costs purely through incremental improvements in technology is far greater for semiconductors than for PV cells, de Haan says. Moreover, while the cost of PV modules will continue falling for many years, it is naïve to think they will decline forever.

“At some point – and this is probably very far away – PV will turn into a commodity business, with module prices moving according to material prices, not technology,” he says. “That’s not the case with semiconductors.”

But de Haan says this is no reason for despair among solar proponents, as by the time this happens PV will be as cheap as, or cheaper than, any other form of electricity production in many parts of the world.