PV equipment spend plunged in 2012

The wave of consolidation washing across PV manufacturers is hitting their equipment suppliers just as hard, with major consequences for the direction and pace of the industry’s mid-term technological development.

Even the strongest production-equipment suppliers have seen their order books decimated as customers across the crystalline silicon (c-Si) and thin-film supply chains close their wallets in an attempt to weather the ongoing capacity glut.

Spending on the machines that PV manufacturers use to turn out their product – from ingots to modules – plummeted to $3.6bn in 2012, from a record-high $12.9bn the year prior, according to market researcher NPD Solarbuzz.

Spending is forecast to fall even further to $2.2bn in 2013, a level not seen since 2006 – a different epoch by PV industry standards.

Earlier this week US-based GT Advanced Technologies – one of just four suppliers with PV-specific revenues of more than $400m last year, alongside Meyer Burger, Applied Materials and Apollo Solar – announced it will idle a pilot plant in St. Louis where it had intended to produce machines for making high-efficiency c-Si ingots.

Meanwhile, Switzerland’s Meyer Burger is in the midst of a jobs-cutting programme announced last year, after acquiring Germany’s Roth & Rau.

Only eight PV toolmakers are likely to have had revenues in excess of $100m last year, compared to 23 companies in 2011, Solarbuzz says.

Solarbuzz vice president Finlay Colville says depressed levels of spending across the equipment space represent “an effective halt to capacity investment by PV manufacturers, as well as a lack of upgrades – whether in new technology or higher efficiency”.

That means that while solar modules may continue getting cheaper, they are not necessarily getting better – or at least not at the same rate as in the past.

The equipment-supplying sector is unlikely to claw its way back to its 2011 peak for at least three years, Colville adds.

And even that timeline could prove overly optimistic given the possible emergence of a secondary market for PV-production machines in China and Taiwan, as failed manufacturers offload used equipment, and existing manufactures attempt to shift production geographically in response to mounting trade barriers.