Plans for a fully-fledged European supply chain – pv magazine International

Excerpt from pv magazine 04/2022

It’s an exciting time for PV manufacturing, with the global solar industry seemingly waking up to the need for localized supply chains in all of its key regions. Europe, India and the United States are all launching major incentives and implementing plans for vertically integrated manufacturing at scales comparable to those already in place in China.

Many of the earliest innovations in solar energy took place in Europe, before much of the world’s manufacturing capacity for photovoltaic modules and related materials moved to Asia over the past decade. And as Europe looks again to establish a local PV manufacturing industry, it is clear that the companies involved want to maintain the continent’s reputation as a technology leader. So far, the bulk of European plans is to produce cells and modules based on heterojunction technology (HJT) – among the most advanced cell designs currently in production and capable of some of the highest performance.

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“In Europe, HJT is currently the technology of choice for new manufacturers and new lines, rather than p-type PERC upgrades,” said Karl Melkonyan, principal analyst at IHS Markit. “Over the past 15 to 20 years, HJT technology has come a long way, continuously reducing costs, increasing conversion efficiency and other performance improvements, as well as strong stability with a very high temperature coefficient. weak. It is also important to mention that there is still room for further improvements.

Overall, HJT will face competition from existing PERC technology, which is already very well optimized in terms of costs, and its main n-type rival TOPCon, which, unlike HJT, can be produced on adapted PERC lines. “HJT and TOPCon still need to develop and improve some of the manufacturing processes to achieve cost competitiveness, with higher efficiencies, higher throughput and durability, shorter processing time, lower cost and better overall performance. “, added Melkonyan. “I don’t think there will be a single winner.” For Europe, however, the largest manufacturing plans announced so far, including those from Meyer Burger in Germany, REC Group and Recom in France, and Enel in Italy, are all HJT-focused. And while these more established players continue their impressive work to improve and optimize silicon cell technology, many innovations await behind the scenes that promise to both support existing plans and move photovoltaic manufacturing in new directions. .

HJT technology

With technologies like HJT approaching the practical efficiency limits of a silicon solar cell, the industry is looking for new materials to achieve higher performance. Perovskites, most often deposited on top of a silicon cell to create a tandem device, emerged as the most promising materials here. And while not yet commercialized at any scale, tandem cells and even perovskites are seen by many as the future of PV.

UK and Germany-based company Oxford PV is among the pioneers of tandem cell technology, already approaching the 30% efficiency mark with lab-scale devices. The company plans to introduce perovskite-silicon modules made at its site in Brandenburg, Germany to the market before the end of this year – after experiencing some delays due to Covid and supply chain constraints. When it comes to the lower silicon cell, Oxford PV strongly believes that the HJT is the best option and sees this as an opportunity for European manufacturers to get a head start on the technology.

“Right now, other regions are to some degree stuck with a legacy product in PERC, and they want to expand it,” said Frank Averdung, CEO of Oxford PV. “In Europe, the current manufacturing capacity is marginal and you don’t have this legacy product. And for us, if we want the highest efficiency, we need the best performing bottom cell, and that of course is HJT.

Polysilicon and beyond

With its recent disruptions, price increases, and concerns about forced labor, the polysilicon supply chain offers a demonstration of the need for localized production from start to finish. While established players like Wacker and Elkem have the capacity to supply much of the polysilicon that European manufacturers will need in the years to come, others are looking for ways to shake this up and significantly reduce costs in the process. .

German startup Nexwafe is developing technology that promises to replace single-step polysilicon production processes, namely ingot mining and sawing, by creating silicon wafers directly from chlorosilane gas. The process promises, according to its creators, to cut the cost of wafer production in half and produce more uniform, high-quality wafers than is possible with current technology. At the end of 2021, the company raised 39 million euros in investments and plans to expand a plant with a capacity of 500 MW at its site in Bitterfeld-Wolfen, Germany, by early 2024.

New thin-film technologies also promise to reduce much of the cost and complexity inherent in manufacturing silicon photovoltaic modules. British company Power Roll recently completed a pilot production line for its technology, which deposits solar cell material into a unique micro-groove structure. In pilot production, the company uses perovskite as a cellular material and targets lightweight and embedded applications. “We estimate that when we scale, our technology will be approximately 50% cheaper on an initial capital basis, with a 50% shorter payback period than existing heavy silicon traditional PV,” said Power Roll CEO, Neil Spann.

Location, location, location

Following the completion of its 100 MW line in Brandenburg, Oxford PV is planning another 2 GW cell and module plant, but has not yet confirmed where it might be located. “We are open to any location. Of course we are a European company, founded in the UK and we have manufacturing operations in Germany and we would prefer to stay,” said Averdung. “But at the same time, we can’t close our eyes if there are substantial benefits in other places.”

In order to remain attractive to companies developing these new photovoltaic technologies, Europe may need to up its game in terms of supporting their scaling up. “The amount needed to expand our site in Germany requires us to raise around 100 million euros. And currently we are seeing state support for maybe 10% or 12% of that,” Nexwafe CEO Davor Sutija said. photo magazine. “And compared to fiscal initiatives in the US, ongoing programs in India and the level of state support in China, this makes Europe a laggard in support of renewables.”

Besides pilot projects demonstrating their technology, Nexwafe and Power Roll pursue a business model of licensing their technology to other manufacturers, rather than doing the manufacturing themselves; meaning they are unlikely to be region bound. India’s Reliance New Energy Solar recently invested 25 million euros in Nexwafe and plans to implement the wafer manufacturing technology in its ambitious supply chain plans in India. Power Roll also plans to manufacture its thin-film technology in India with local partner Thermax.

Both companies, however, say they see plenty of opportunities in Europe and want to play a role in the region’s photovoltaic industry. “We will develop new generations of very high efficiency solar panels, including with doping gradients, and new structures. And we think it would be ideal to have partners in Europe to bring these new innovations to market,” Sutija said. “At the same time, our work with Reliance shows that there is global demand for our technology. And from an investment perspective, we need to be able to compete globally and create strategic partnerships that allow our technology to spread as quickly as possible.

Value chains

With its perovskite technology, Oxford PV has also been careful to avoid relying on materials that may be lacking in any region. “We studied the materials that go into our perovskite cells to ensure they are readily available, available in non-conflicting regions, and in sufficient quantities,” said Chris Case, the company’s CTO. “Our calculations show that there is enough to supply over 30 TW of perovskite technology, and we have the capacity within the supply chain from Europe, if needed, to supply these critical materials, and they are available from primary sources.”

Nexwafe’s Sutija also notes that the planned facility in Bitterfeld, in Germany’s “solar valley”, will be able to source chlorosilane gas from a facility next door.

Even with the raw materials available, for technologies like these to reach significant scale, the entire supply chain must also be present – including the BOM of modules such as glass, frames, etc. There is no technological obstacle to prevent this, it is about people who have confidence in the market and who are ready to invest,” said Averdung. “What we need to do now is think about speeding up, right? And I think that here, politics can help.

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