Oerlikon Solar: Thin film silicon technology will profit from the coming PV market upswing

The drastic consolidations of the past months have caught the entire photovoltaic (PV) industry off guard. Nobody saw it coming, considering the booming regions in Asia, first and foremost India and China, which will lead to an overall record year in 2012 according to IMS Research.

But whoever thinks photovoltaics can now be written off will be wrong, the Swiss engineering firm Oerlikon Solar emphasizes in Solar Server's topical "Solar point of view", featuring original sounds from the industy.

"Significant growth will continue to generate increased demand for modules and production facilities in these countries, as well as in established markets such as the USA, and most recently also Japan," says Dr. Reinhard Benz, Director, Head of Strategic Sales & Product Marketing at Oerlikon Solar. "Companies with the right innovations in their portfolio will profit from this development and be able to assert themselves from a position of strength. We are convinced that our thin film silicon technology will be among the beneficiaries.”

Thin film silicon technology positioned for the coming market upswing

While the large Japanese company Tokyo Electron (TEL) is currently planning to take over Oerlikon Solar, the Swiss are positioning their thin film silicon technology for the expected upswing in 2013. Market researchers such as the US-American consulting agency Solarbuzz predict a noticeable recovery on the market for PV equipment in 2013. The top photovoltaic suppliers are accordingly nearly doubling expenditure on production facilities for manufacturing solar cells and modules. Even if the market overproduces modules, the existing production lines will no longer achieve the necessary economic productivity and efficiency levels and must be refurbished or completely replaced. The operative costs of older plants lie significantly above those using the current technology of Oerlikon Solar, whose competitiveness in the industry was given an enormous boost in the last four years ever since the market launch of Mikromorph® tandem technology at an investment cost of 150 million euros.

 

Cost leadership thanks to innovative advances

The innovation successes accomplished by Oerlikon Solar form a robust basis for continued development of the technology. For example, engineers at Oerlikon Solar have cut module production costs by more than 70% and increased throughput capacity by over 125%, along with an increase of module efficiency of about 24%. Oerlikon Solar’s current fully integrated turnkey production line ThinFab™ 140, launched in 2012, has already set the global standard for producing environmentally-friendly solar modules at the lowest cost of about 0.35 euros/Wp, which means cost leadership in the global solar industry today. This is made possible by various innovations such as optimized tools and processes for plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition (PECVD) of the amorphous and microcrystalline silicon absorber layers, or more efficient cleaning of the KAI reactor with the considerably more environmentally friendly atomic gas fluorine (F2), which has a greater etch rate at lower gas consumption. All these improvements reduce production costs and cycle times and increase the performance capability of the production line. Greater investments in research and development also rapidly push forward these trend-setting innovations, which will allow even lower prices for customers.

 

Growth markets offer excellent prospects for thin film silicon

Oerlikon Solar has already turned to the growth markets of Asia for some time now, thus addressing important regions of the world-wide Sun Belt where outdoor installations dominate. Here thin film silicon technology offers significant advantages over crystalline; at high temperatures, modules manufactured on Oerlikon Solar production lines produce five to ten percent more electricity. The micromorph® thin film technology has especially good chances for gaining a significant market share in sunny Japan. With its reimbursement program, Japan has since this summer become one of the central markets of the future. And there need be no fear of competition from CdTe technology, which is not approved in Japan because of its toxicity. Thin film silicon modules manage completely without additives such as heavy metals and are not affected by existing or future market restrictions. 

 

Integrated and local production lines in greatest demand in growth markets

The local module production is increasingly state-supported in the emerging Sun Belt regions such as the Near and Middle East. Accordingly, the interest of local companies in starting up PV production has appreciably increased in the past months. Individual integrated production lines are preferred in these countries because of financial hurdles and also existing sales potential, but the modules still have to be manufactured at competitive costs. In addition to its current cost leadership in module production, Oerlikon Solar production lines enable an annual production of about 910,000 modules – corresponding to 140 megawatt – at lowest capital expenditure (capex) of only 0.75 euro/Wp, including performance guarantees and technical service packages. For these countries, this is the most attractive product on the market.

 

Thin film silicon is also interesting for niche markets

The world-wide intensified collaboration between solar companies, architects and construction companies has also opened up new markets for PV suppliers. Pike Research predicts that by 2017 the market growth for building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) will be 4.6 GW, making BIPV one of the fastest growing segments in the solar market. An additional uplift is expected for thin film silicon technology due to its semi and complete transparency that allows the use of color filters. Such modules cater to the aesthetic requirements of architects and developers and are therefore in increasing demand. Even the ingenious module mounting technology MMITM from Oerlikon Solar, which functions similar to the press button principle, is an outstanding option for BIPV fields of application.

 

Key brand essence of "Swiss quality" will increase in significance

Along with growing experience in the industry, the topic of quality will continually gain in importance. The customers of Oerlikon Solar have always highly valued the branded

promise of Swiss quality. Oerlikon Solar, for example, conducts so-called accelerated service life tests on the modules as one of numerous quality-excellence fields, subjecting them to the toughest stress conditions and by far exceeding official TÜV requirements: so-called "Biased Damp-Heat Tests" where the modules are operated at 80% air humidity and higher voltage for a duration of up to five times as long without significant power loss. Everyone benefits from the results of such tests: the technology supplier, the module manufacturer, and the solar farm operator. Furthermore, Oerlikon Solar customers appreciate the additional services offered in the form of local support for integrating the technical processes and production ramp-up phase as well as servicing the entire production line by experienced engineers during the warranty period. This service guarantees a smooth production ramp-up and prompt returns, considerably reducing risk for the customer and participating investors.