Perspectives on Crystalline Silicon PV

Remember when crystalline silicon (c-Si) PV modules were selling for around $4 per watt, and it was difficult to find a manufacturer or distributor that could consistently guarantee product delivery against your purchase orders? That was not so long ago—just 4 or 5 years. It was easy to imagine under those circumstances that c-Si PV’s dominant market position was vulnerable and that thin-film PV technologies were poised to make significant inroads.

To a certain extent this did come to pass. The approximate market share for thin-film PV increased from 10% in 2007 to 14% in 2008 to 17% in 2009. That same year, a thinfilm PV module manufacturer, First Solar, led the PV industry in annual production capacity for the first time, outproducing traditional c-Si market leaders like Suntech Power and Sharp.

Then came a remarkable reversal of fortunes. In an article published on May 9, 2011, Shyam Mehta of Greentech Media reported: “2010 marked the first time since 2005 that thin-film market share declined ( from 17% in 2009 to 13% in 2010).” Over the last 18 months, buoyed by a rapid expansion of c-Si PV manufacturing capacity in China and Taiwan and stable polysilicon prices, c-Si PV has reclaimed some of its market share losses.

As evidence of the recent increase in the number of c-Si PV module manufacturers, 53 manufacturers are included in SolarPro magazine’s “2011 c-Si PV Module Specifications.” This represents an almost 50% increase in the number of manufacturers that qualified for inclusion in our 2010 c-Si PV specifications table. As in previous years, we filtered the data to include only listed and CEC-eligible products. Even after the products from these manufacturers were filtered further to include only modules rated at 175 W or larger, the total number of c-Si PV modules available to North American system designers, integrators and installers today exceeds 800, more than twice as many products than were available just 1 year ago.

2011 c-Si PV Module Specifications

For 2011, we assembled our most comprehensive module specifications dataset to date. The removable Desktop Reference Guide included in this article contains manufacturer-vetted data for 486 modules from 53 manufacturers. All of the modules represented were reported to be available to integrators working in the North American PV market. Modules with an STC rating of 175 W or higher that were compliant with California Energy Commission (CEC) SB1 Guidelines as of July 1, 2011, are included. Due to the wide variance in the number of models produced by various manufacturers, some module lines are not presented in their entirety in the printed version of this guide. Modules from each manufacturer are sorted by STC rating in descending order. An expanded version of the dataset is available to SolarPro readers in Excel format at The online version of the table contains specifications for the full dataset of 835 modules.

Not only are more c-Si PV products available than before, but it is also a buyer’s market. Softening demand in traditionally strong European FIT markets has led to a global oversupply of PV modules, marked by falling prices. While GTM Research reports that prices for Tier 1 Chinese c-Si PV modules averaged around $2.20 per watt in 2009 and $1.75 per watt in 2010 (see Resources), the talk at Intersolar North America in July 2011 was of prices in the $1.30 to $1.40 per watt range, depending on the size of the order. Opinions differ on the likelihood of price stabilization in the near future, as it is unclear if demand in Germany is picking up in the second half of 2011.

Bargain pricing for c-Si PV is both good and bad news. It is good news for potential customers who are looking for the best deal possible. It is good news for the industry in general, in the sense that we can point to declining module prices as proof that progress is being made toward grid parity. It is bad news, however, for module manufacturers. Because market prices are falling faster than manufacturers can drive costs out of their products, their profit margins are being squeezed. If this trend continues unabated, it may prove challenging for the industry in general. Companies may fail, leaving behind unsupported products and customers.

This article gathers perspectives from multiple industry stakeholders on the past, present and future of c-Si PV. We interviewed professional engineers, industry consultants and representatives from both emerging and established c-Si PV module manufacturers. The first perspective presented is that of Bill Brooks, principal engineer at Brooks Engineering, a 24-year veteran in the solar industry.


Article Discussion