26 February 2020

Solar trade war to put the shine on thin-film technology

A new round has officially begun this month in the solar industry trade dispute between China and the United States. While it is certain that no one will benefit from any protracted battle, the proposed action by Washington this time could however have one positive impact — it could prompt firms to focus on the fast-growing thin-film solar products segment that features advanced technologies.

Last week, for the second time in just over a year, the US Commerce Department announced that it will start antidumping and countervailing duty investigations on solar products from China and Taiwan, and assess whether the products are sold at below cost in the US due to unfair government subsidies.

However, the investigation is targeted primarily at traditional crystalline solar products, with the US authorities not making any mention of the thin-film solar segment. That could potentially mean a big break for the new-generation solar products.

Zhang Guobao, former chief of the National Energy Administration and currently honorary chairman of the newly established thin-film photovoltaic (PV) manufacturer alliance, said earlier that the thin-film solar products industry hasn’t faced any antidumping investigations yet, and “this should be an opportunity for the industry”.

There are two main technologies in the photovoltaic industry. The first is the more mature, traditional crystalline silicon wafer-based panels; the other is the thin-film panel technology which uses Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS) as the semiconductor instead of silicon.

Silicon products are still the dominant plays; they accounted for 84 percent of the global market in 2010, according to research institute Frost & Sullivan. That said, thin-film solar products are steadily gaining popularity, with the segment’s market share expected to reach 21 percent this year.

Thin-film technology is nothing new. For example, if we look at a handheld solar-powered calculator, we can see a few tiny dark-colored squares on top of it — they are solar cells made from thin-film technology. But it is just in recent years that the technology has developed into a more efficient and cost effective way to convert sunlight into electricity.

Unlike silicon-wafer cells, which have light-absorbing layers that are traditionally 350 microns thick, thin-film solar cells have light-absorbing layers that are just one micron in thickness. Because of its thinness and flexibility, thin-film solar cells can be applied to a much wider range of products than traditional silicon cells, including Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) systems, solar-electricity cars and even lamp posts.

Hanergy Solar Group (00566.HK) is one of the leading players in thin-film solar technology in China. The company, along with Dongyue Group (00189.HK), has led more than 100 thin-film photovoltaic (PV) manufacturers in the country into an industry alliance two weeks ago, in a bid to boost the sector’s collective competitiveness.

Once a major wind power player, Hanergy has morphed itself into a major manufacturer of thin-film solar modules after three major acquisitions last year. The group bought the intellectual property rights on CIGS technologies from Germany-based Solibro and US-based MiaSole before it made an acquisition of the entire equity interest in Columbia Solar Energy last November.

The firm announced that it has reached 19.6 percent conversion efficiency, beating its previous record of 18.7 percent. It said its annual capacity has reached 3 gigawatts, which can generate enough electricity to meet a whole year’s local needs for a city having a population of 10 million.

Given that Europe and US have imposed tariffs on Chinese solar products, domestic traditional crystalline silicon producers have already been facing a shrinking market.

If the US government decides to impose new tariffs next month, the move could “entirely block” Chinese traditional solar companies from exporting to the US, which could open up a rare opportunity for thin-film solar cells producers to expand their business and even outgrow traditional crystalline silicon wafer manufacturers in the future.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer