The return of solar cell production is on the horizon in Germany. Increased automation and new technologies could make solar cells “made in Germany” profitable again. German module producers appreciate this, also to reduce dependencies from Asia.
The cell comes back. There are several indications that in Germany there will be a new large solar cell production in the foreseeable future. With the Swiss machine builder Meyer Burger, a first player has ventured out of cover. "We are evaluating possible plans to set up our own cell and module production in Europe, primarily in Germany," said a spokeswoman for the company to Solarthemen. At the company's general meeting in mid-May the company confirmed the new strategic approach to its shareholders.
Under the direction of ex-Solarworld manager and new CEO Gunter Erfurt, the company was working "with high pressure on the next steps for implementation". The crux of the matter is the financing of the multi-million project for solar cell production. The bottom line is that the machine builder has not come out of the red for years. In 2019, the group consumed more than half of its liquidity. It is no wonder that speculation about a capital increase of the listed company has grown up. Meyer Burger officially speaks of "discussions about concrete financing options".
Potential of technology
But Meyer Burger sees high potential in the company’s proprietary heterojunction technology. So far, the Thuners had delivered the machines for the production of high-efficient solar cells to third parties only. But after an order with a US company had recently been canceled due to its financial problems, Meyer Burger now wants to deepen the added value itself. By entering its own large-scale solar cell production, the company wanted "benefit directly from the technology and cost leadership of the proprietary, patented heterojunction/SmartWire technology".
The Swiss see themselves as part of the plan to revitalize the solar industry in Europe. German mechanical engineering is also infected by the new solar cell fever. So the head of the VDMA photovoltaic section, Peter Fath appreciates the "increase in demand for German machines for solar cell production". There were more and more inquiries for solar facilities outside Asia. Targeting local solar cell production to break the dependencies from China's was a trend right now, he said.
Interested parties in Germany
And this trend is becoming increasingly evident in Europe. In Germany, Bernhard Weilharter, managing director of the module manufacturer Sonnenstromfabrik, observes "some interested parties who want that". For the Wismarers, who specialize in double glass modules, niche products and OEMs and sold around 80 megawatts (MW) of solar in 2019, investing in their own solar cell production is out of the question. But "the momentum is there." The Sonnenstromfabrik itself was the point of contact for the exchange of ideas.
Weilharter does not want to give any specific names when talking to Solarthemen, but reveals that newcomers to the industry are also among them.
There have to be two things in order for a large solar cell production in Europe to pay off. "Modern cell manufacturing is fully automated. In this respect, the wage differences between Germany and Asia do not make much difference,” said Weilharter. His company would also be willing to pay a little more for the European content. Those who rely on European instead of Chinese modules today have to pay about ten cents more per watt peak output. "That makes a few hundred euros in a typical five kilowatt system." If the cells were also from Europe, the difference to Asia would increase to around 13 cents.
In addition, as a high-tech location, Europe must definitely rely on a cell factory with highly efficient products. The Sonnenstromfabrik boss cites the example of perovskite cells, in which an efficiency beyond 25 percent can currently be achieved. "If someone comes and offers me a perovskite cell with 25 percent efficiency or more here from Europe, I would like to take it."
More independence from Asia
With cells from Europe, the module builders could not only assert a higher European production share with their customers when in doubt. In individual segments, this can represent a competitive advantage over predominantly non-European products. They would become somewhat less dependent on any Asian delivery shortfalls that occurred during the corona crisis.
For example, Sonnenstromfabrik had to switch to a European partner for aluminum frames in the first quarter because the Asian supplier could not deliver. "The business in Europe has proven itself", said Weilharter.
Competitor Solarwatt was also forced to change the logistics. Because the cell suppliers in the Far East had to shut down the machines at the beginning of the year because of Corona. The Dresdeners therefore had to switch to air freight in order to receive supplies in time after restarting production in Asia. However, delivery by plane increases the transport costs per watt by around two cents compared to container shipping, reports the Solarwatt sales manager for Central Europe, Felix Bräuer. Measured by the price advantage of Chinese cells, as calculated by Weilharter, this eats up most of the cheaper production costs in Asia.
It's no wonder that, according to Bräuer, Solarwatt also had the “very strong desire” for a European cell factory. “At the moment, however, we would rather not participate in cell production. We are not aiming to deepen added value in this direction. "
Europe is not an end in itself
Europe is also not an end in itself for the Dresdeners on this issue. "Quality and availability should be right." It was also important to always have several cell suppliers. All in all, he sees cell production in Europe "not yet at the door".
The Federal Association of the Solar Industry speaks with curbed euphoria. "Returning to the mass production of solar cells in Germany is high on the wish list of the solar industry, its suppliers and our top-class research institutions," said managing director Carsten Körnig to Solarthemen. But that is not a sure-fire success. "A clear strategic commitment of German and European politics and a reliably growing internal sales of photovoltaics are among the most important location factors." The rapid raising of the PV expansion goals and the removal of market barriers are a prerequisite for this.
Cells made in the EU for the Green Deal
The question of a solar cell factory is of European relevance. Against the background of the corona crisis, Europe must be able to map the relevant value chains itself, explains the European solar association Solar Power Europe. In a letter to the EU Commission, 90 organizations demand that solar factories must become an integral part of European climate protection policy and the reconstruction program after Corona. "The Green Deal makes no sense without solar added value in Europe," said Lithuanian Vice Energy Minister Rytis Kėvelaitis. Meyer Burger CEO Erfurt takes the same line. "The solar manufacturing industry can play a decisive role in reviving the European economy." As it currently looks, the Swiss machine manufacturer could be at the forefront.