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Which is the Lowest Cost Solar Panel Manufacturer in the World

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The questions mentioned in the title does not have an exact form because Solar Panels come in a wide variety of Technologies,Efficiencies,Form Factors,Quality etc.Depending on the type of use that commercial,utility and residential application,some panels may not be suitable despite their lower costs.Some applications like Satellites need high efficiency panels where cost is not the most important parameter.

What are the Different Types of Solar Panels

Size

Solar Panels come in all sorts of sizes,colours and power.Solar Panels of 20-40 Watts are typically used for applications like a Solar Lamp,Lantern and products using small amounts of power.For Putting Solar Panels on the Roof for Generation of Electricity,sizes vary from 150 Watts to 300 Watts.

Type and Color

There are also 2 different types of Crystalline Silicon Panels – a) Monocrystalline b) Multicrystalline Panels.In general Monocrystalline Panels give higher amounts of power and cost more.Solar Panels generally come in blue color though black color can also be found.

Thin Film Panels

Thin Film Panels are generally used for Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) applications where the Panels are integrated as a part of the Building Structure.This is in not prevalent in India as of now but will become quite pervasive in the future.

Lowest Cost Panel Producer in Thin Film Technology

First Solar,the US based Cadmium Tellurium (Cd-Te) is the lowest cost panel producer in the world today if you don’t include any penalty for low efficiency.Even if you penalize the Cd-Te Technology for its lower efficiency vis-a-vis the higher efficiency crystalline technology,First Solar is clearly the leader with a core cost of 74c/watt.The company has a roadmap of  reducing the cost to 52c/watt by 2014 and given its track record it seems quite achievable.In Cd-Te,some new competitors have claimed even lower costs than First Solar but they have yet to prove it in large scale production.General Electric,Abound Solar are some of the other Cd-Te players which are planning commercial production in a year or two.But with around 2 GW of capacity,they will have a lot of catching up to do.

CIGs Technology can challenge First Solar Dominance

CIGs Technology is becoming the Thin Film Choice amongst most of the newer players.TSMC has a scary cost target of 19c/watt in 2-3 years while other startups like Miasole,Nanosolar,Solar Frontier have also talked a lot without actually coming to the market in scale.However CIGs promises a better efficiency that Cd-Te and seeing the number of CIGs players its only a matter of time before someone makes a big success out of it .

Crystalline Silicon (c-Si) Technology Lowest Cost Producer

In Crystalline Silicon Technology,Trina Solar and Yingli Solar are the lowest cost producers of solar panels today at around $1/watt.Their very low processing cost and vertically integrated model makes their panels the cheapest and has allowed them to grow their margins to a high level.However these companies can’t be complacent as polysilicon producers like LDK and Renesola could lower the cost even further due to polysilicon integration.Yingli has already set up a 3000 ton poly plant which would make it the lowest cost producer in 2011 inching ahead of Trina Solar

Other Chinese companies like Solarfun,Jinko Solar,Canadian Solar are also rapidly decreasing costs and the spread between them and the cost leaders Trina and Yingli is constantly coming down.In a couple of years,the leadership on the c-Si Technology might change as companies compete with each other in increasing efficiency and processes.The focus of the c-Si Companies has recently changed from

The Next Radical Change in the Industry will be Focus on Efficiency

With most of the low hanging fruit of polysilicon costs already gone,the industry has to focus on efficiency to cut down on costs.Selective emitters,microinverters,DC-DC optimization and other technologies are already finding takers.A Number of microinverter companies like Tigo,Enphase Energy etc are tying up with global heavyweights like Suntech and Sunpower to increase their penetration and cut costs.National Semiconductor has also tied up with Suntech to integrate its products with Suntech Modules to improve efficiency and  reliability.The Balance of Systems costs for Solar Panels and their Performance are not usually paid a lot of attention.But with every cent now making a big difference,these technology could make or break a company in this commoditizing industry.While the value addition and costs of these new products are still subject to market acceptance,its a major change for the industry.This is the next phase in the evolution of the solar energy industry as it looks to additional ways to cut costs and bring solar energy to grid parity.Look for M&A in this space as well since the industry is fragmented with a host of VC backed startups

European Solar Companies REC and Q-Cells have shifted their production bases to Malaysia and Singapore.Their costs are coming down but their costs  are still much higher than the costs of Chinese companies.European and US solar factories are shutting down as they become uncompetitive with low cost Asian competition.Even US companeis like Evergreen Solar is shifting lock,stock and barrel to China.First Solar and Sunpower the preeminent US solar companies already have most of their production located in Asia.Note the US Policy on discretionary promotion of Solar Companies in the USA has already backfired with DOE Darling Solyndra already cutting back on its expansion plans.

What could be the next Game Changing Lower Cost Solar Panel Technology Disruptor

The amount of R&D Dollars being spent on Solar Technology has increased exponentially in the last few years with global giants like Samsung,LG,Hyundai,Saint Gobain,Honda,AUO entering the market.Besides numerous small start-ups are concentrating on innovative ways to dramatically lower the costs of solar energy.3rd generation bio based solar technology and innovative space materials promise dramatically lower costs in the future.However those developments are still a decade away.In the near term Concentrated Solar Photovoltaics (CPV) and Heterogeneous Cell Junction Technologies promise the next leg in solar cost reduction.Companies like Stion and Oerlikon are working on Multiple Cell Junction to improve the efficiency of thin film technologies to bring them on par with Crystalline Solar Technologies.

Solar Energy Future Growth has been vastly been underestimated by policymakers and even by renowned consultants like BCG.It presents  one of the greatest energy opportunities of the 21st century with the Solar Industry about to reach a crucial inflection point in the next couple of years.

PG

Abhishek Shah

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