'Newcomers' to drive PV innovation

The global PV industry is set for a spurt of innovation after several years of technological stagnation – and it will not emanate from the tier-one cell and module makers, claims the head of a German PV toolmaker.

From a technology standpoint, many of the world’s largest PV manufacturers squandered the last few years, first because of pressures related to the market boom, and then, after the market became oversaturated, because of their poor financial health, according to Singulus chief executive Stefan Rinck.

The technology to jolt crystalline silicon (c-Si) modules past the 20% efficiency mark has been available for years, but the world’s biggest producers have largely put off upgrading, says Rinck.

During the “boom years”, big cell and module makers said, ‘We just want to copy what we’ve been doing and not take any risks’”, Rinck says. In terms of technology, the industry “lost three or four years to this boom”.

Many companies are now investing in upgrades. But for the most part it is not the tier-one Chinese suppliers doing so, many of which remain in grim financial shape.

“You have these big companies, tier-one suppliers, and they lost so much money,” says Rinck, whose company makes production equipment for the optical disc, semiconductor and PV manufacturing sectors, with solar accounting for about one-third of its revenues in the latest quarter.

“They say, ‘We have all this equipment, and we can’t easily scrap it and invest in new machinery, so we have to live with what we have’”.

Instead, it is “newcomers” – based primarily in China and North America – who are investing in better PV production equipment, including on the thin-film side.

“The market is coming back, and there are newcomers that are very much interested in these new technologies – thinner wafers, n-type material, heterojunction cells,” Rinck says. “We will very soon see [c-Si] modules coming with efficiencies much above 20%.”

This growth in investment among less-than-established companies may actually reverse the consolidation process the industry has been going through, at least in terms of technology and product offerings.

“The world – when it comes to c-Si – will become much more colourful,” says Rinck, adding that he believes there will be far more product differentiation between companies in the years ahead.