Wacker opens $1.2bn German polysilicon plant expansion

Wacker Chemie has opened its €900m ($1.19bn) polysilicon upgrade at Nünchritz, Germany, as the chemicals giant deepens its bet on a market segment that has seen its average selling price decimated over the past few years.

Wacker – considered one of the solar sector’s “big four” polysilicon producers alongside Korea’s OCI, US-based Hemlock and China’s GCL-Poly – broke ground at the plant in 2008.

When it is fully-ramped in a few weeks, the Nünchritz plant will be capable of turning out 15,000 metric tonnes (MT) per year – lifting Wacker’s total capability to 52,000MT by the end of 2012.

In addition, the company began building another 15,000MT facility last year in the US state of Tennessee, which is on track for completion in late 2013.

Wacker’s steely resolve to press ahead with its capacity expansions flies in the face of the crushing price declines seen for polysilicon over the past few years.

Analysts expect the intense price-pressure to continue unabated in 2012 as the PV industry continues its consolidation, with polysilicon prices likely to level out some time in 2013.

Market researcher IHS iSuppli says global polysilicon capacity will grow 15% this year to 328,000MT, against aggregate demand of just 196,000MT.

But a significant share of that comes from lower-tier producers whose product is of a lesser quality. With the entire PV sector focused like a laser on increasing cell efficiency in order to protect competitiveness, players like Wacker are able to fetch a premium for their hyper-pure output.

Chief executive Rudolf Staudigl says Wacker’s output is “almost completely under contract” until late 2015.

He says demand has picked up once again in early 2012, with China, India and the US representing the biggest growth drivers.

“We are very optimistic about the outlook for PV because the significant price decline for polysilicon, wafers, cells and moduels strengthens [PV’s] competitiveness as an energy source,” Staudigl says.

Polysilicon accounted for roughly one-quarter of Wacker’s €4.9bn ($6.5bn) in revenues last year, and has been by far the company’s fastest growing segment in recent years.