c-Si Photovoltaics: Trends, Design, Purchasing and 2009 Specs

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association’s 2008 US Solar Industry Year in Review, the installed capacity of gridtied PV in the US increased an astonishing 81% for the year. Of the 342 MW of capacity that the US added last year, 292 MW was connected to the grid.

Cumulative grid-connected PV capacity in the US eclipsed 1 GW in 2008. The global PV market was even stronger, reaching 110% growth according to the Marketbuzz 2009 report from Solarbuzz. Spain accounted for 2.4 GW of the 5.95 GW installed worldwide in 2008, while Germany installed 1.86 GW, with the US finishing a distant third in added capacity. In spite of this record growth at home and abroad, the PV industry is now bracing itself to face the effects of a module oversupply and a global recession.

To help integrators navigate the unprecedented bounty of crystalline silicon (c-Si) PV modules, the table that accompanies this article on pages 62–73 lists comprehensive specifications for all of the mono- and polycrystalline PV modules rated at 100 W STC or greater that are available in North America for grid-connected applications. This article provides business owners, sales personnel, and system designers and installers with insights into how best to put these products to use, especially concerning optimal design and installation practices. It also discusses changes in standards, codes and market conditions that will have short- and long-term impacts on c-Si product listing and availability and your business model.

MARKET TRENDS

As a technology, c-Si PV modules are elegant in their simplicity, reliability and predictability. Despite the material and fabrication challenges that manufacturers must constantly overcome, they succeed in delivering incrementally improved products year after year—PV modules that last for decades in the most challenging environmental conditions. Nonetheless, the most exciting developments in the industry right now are not driven by technological breakthroughs, but rather global market conditions. This is a time of both feast and famine—the best of times or the worst of times, depending on your perspective.

After 5 years of supply constraints due to a global shortage of polysilicon feedstock, the oversupply of PV modules is undoubtedly a welcome relief to many readers. Gone are the days when installers had to suffer through 6-month lead times, last minute system redesigns due to product unavailability and blown margins caused by price increases that seemingly came every month without warning. More modules are available now than ever before, in terms of models, manufacturers and sheer quantity. It is, at long last, a buyer’s market.

For c-Si module manufacturers, the outlook is more challenging. While polysilicon prices have dropped over the last year, some module manufacturers are locked into long-term feedstock delivery contracts. SunTech Power, for example, the highest capacity cell and module manufacturer in the world, announced in February that it had renegotiated the terms of a 10-year supply contract with MEMC, increasing purchase volume in order to decrease material costs.

An additional challenge facing manufacturers is that many industry analysts predict a global market contraction in 2009, a result of both the global economic crisis and the caps that Spain put on its feed-in tariff program. According to one analyst, Dr. Hennig Wicht, the senior director and principal photovoltaics analyst at iSuppli, PV module supply in 2009 will exceed demand by an estimated 168%, up from a 102% oversupply in 2008. Wicht believes that while the PV market may see modest growth in 2009, resulting revenue will still be down overall, something the market has not seen in the last decade.

The gap between supply and demand has led to lower wholesale and retail module prices in 2009, a trend that is expected to continue throughout the year. Those farthest down the supply chain will benefit from this the most: customers, PV installers and integrators. Distributors also stand to benefit, assuming they are not sitting on too much inventory purchased at higher prices. As module oversupply is forecast to continue through 2009, installers and integrators who were wise to inventory product as a hedge against scarcity may find this business model less advantageous. On demand ordering and on time delivery may finally be practicable, even profitable.

While lower module pricing should benefit installers and integrators in general, it makes for difficult times elsewhere in the supply chain. Faced with reduced revenues or operating losses, as well as a tight global credit market, module manufacturers are cutting staff, closing facilities and even going out of business in some cases. Many industry experts anticipated these manufacturing losses; but even these so-called shortterm losses have long-term implications for installers. Module manufacturers that go out of business tend to leave behind a legacy of 25-year product that no longer has warranty support. This is unfortunate for everyone involved.

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