2012 Top Solar "Module" Manufacturers Worldwide
Listed below per IHS are the top ten "module" installation companies in 2012. First Solar dropped to number two while Yingli moved up to number one on the top 10 list. Six of the top 10 panel producers are Chinese and during 2012 well over 50% of all solar panels shipped were manufactured in China. The top 10 in 2012 accounted for 40% of market share, while the top 10 in 2011 accounted for 46% of market share. There is a general trend for companies to vertically integrate, i.e. manufacture all three stages of production - wafers, cells, and modules. Wafer companies are moving into cells because they have a cost advantage using their own wafers. Pure cell manufacturers are moving into modules, which is basically low tech assembly, but it also gives them a low cost material advantage. Major players want to be totally integrated from wafers to modules and even end user sales and installation. Having an internal supply of material shields companies from the up and down swings of the spot markets and provides an opportunity to "brand" their products.
|1||Yingli Green, China||c-Si||2,300|
|2||First Solar, USA||CdTe||1,800|
|3||Trina Solar, China||c-Si||1,600|
|4||Canadian Solar, China||c-Si||1,550|
|6||Sharp, Japan||c-Si, Thin Film Si||1,050|
|7||Jinko Solar, China||c-Si||900|
|9||REC Group, Norway||c-Si||750|
|10||Hanwha Solar, China||a-Si||750|
|c-Si = Crystalline Silicon, a-Si = Amorphous Silicon, CdTe = Cadmium Telluride|
Featured US Solar Companies:
This section presents a number of US companies each with different technologies and strategies to give the reader a feel for the breath of technology that makes up the solar industry. It is not meant to be a comprehensive survey and companies not mentioned should not be deemed to have poor technologies.
First Solar (CdTe)
First Solar, with headquarters in Tempe, Arizona, is one of the two largest solar companies in the world as measured by 2012 module mega-watts installed and first as measured by stock market capitalization. Since 2006, First Solar has come on very strong. Its low module cost per installed watt is the best in the industry. Having the lowest cost per watt has given First Solar the upper hand in very large installations in Germany, Italy, China and the US. First Solar uses thin film technology based on Cadmium Telluride (CdTe). See Cadmium Telluride in the Solar In-depth Section.
CdTe technology has been in development at First Solar since 1990 and is now the low cost leader in the solar field. In a typical CdTe module, the top layer is p-type cadmium sulfide (CdS) and the bottom layer is n-type CdTe. These layers are extremely thin, deposited in a vacuum chamber molecule by molecule on glass. Hence very little semiconductor material is used (about 2% compared to crystalline silicon cells) which greatly reduces product costs. This arrangement sets up an electric field between the p- and n-type regions similar to the fields set up in crystalline silicon cells. The same principles generate a voltage and the electric current (see Crystalline Silicon Solar Cells).
Another big advantage for First Solar is its continuous manufacturing process as opposed to batch processing. Total time to make a solar module is 2.5 hours from glass in to module out. Low cost semiconductor materials, the continuous manufacturing process, and the benefits of scale allow First Solar to embark on a continuous cost improvement program that has proven to be the best in the industry. Cost per watt in 2012 was an industry leading $.66 per watt down from $1.08 in 2008. Its best plant was $.64. (Cost per watt numbers exclude under-utilization and upgrades.) The company's goal is to be under $.55 in 2014 and to be about $.40 by 2017.
The cost advantage allows First Solar to submit winning bids on extremely large projects and still make a decent profit. In addition First Solar is very good at managing the installation of very large projects and then selling them to investors afterwards. Through the handling of many large projects, First Solar has developed proprietary utility solutions for forecasting solar energy production (important for planning total energy production) and seamless reliable integration into different grid configurations.
Cadmium is an extremely toxic substance. First Solar has implemented a recycling program that covers the costs of transporting and recycling the panels at the end of their useful life. Recycling has been fully demonstrated on scrap panels and warrantee replacements. Glass plates surround the CdTe material and in case of fire seal shut, not allowing any cadmium to escape. This has been verified by the Brookhaven National Laboratory. First Solar panels have also undergone extensive testing by UL and have been UL certified.
Research, development and some manufacturing takes place at First Solar's Ohio facility. First Solar has its main manufacturing plants in Malaysia. It had a major plant in Germany that was shut down at the end of 2012 because it was not as efficient as the plants in Malaysia. Planned new plants in Arizona and France were also placed on hold during 2012 because of the glut of solar capacity world wide. Looking forward, the company at the end of 2012 had 24 production lines and each line had an average 70 megawatt AC capacity resulting in 1.68 GW of total manufacturing capacity. Actual amount of modules installed in 2012 was 1.4 GW.
At the end of 2012, First Solar's backlog of project contracts totaled 2.2 GW. These contracts make up First Solar's "systems" business as opposed to their "components" business which is sales of modules and associated supplies. The systems business includes engineering, land procurement and licensing, construction and associated services. The systems business provides a source of guaranteed revenue independent of general economic conditions.
In April of 2013. First Solar announced that it would acquire Silicon Valley startup TetraSun from JX Nippon Oil Energy Corp and other investors. It will begin commercial manufacturing of high efficiency crystalline silicon modules in the last half of 2014. "The TetraSun acquisition will give First Solar a foothold in markets where limited space requires a higher-efficiency product, such as rooftops" said CEO Jim Hughes. The First Solar acquisition of
In August, 2013 First Solar announced that it is buying advanced thin film solar panel technology from General Electric Co in exchange for a 2% stake in the company. GE's CdTe thin film technology has performed well in lab tests, but has not been manufactured at large scales. First Solar will incorporate GE's technology into its extensive manufacturing processes. GE in return will purchase and brand First Solar panels for its own solar installations. The oversupply of crystalline silicon manufacturing capacity, a reduction in global renewable energy subsidies, and lower prices for the raw material for traditional panels has sent prices for all solar panels plummeting. This made solar panels much more affordable for customers, but it seriously eroded the price advantage of First Solar's thin film modules. This agreement with GE has the purpose or restoring some of the CdTe thin film profits and at the same time increases the sales of CdTe thin film modules through GE's extensive sales resources - a win-win combination for both parties.
SunPower (Crystalline Silicone)
SunPower Corporation, with headquarters in San Jose, California, is the second largest solar company in the US. SunPower is a highly vertically integrated solar products and services company that prides itself for being the most efficient PV solar company worldwide. The Company’s crystalline silicon solar cells and solar panels are based on more than 15 years of research and development and use very proprietary manufacturing processes.
As mentioned above, SunPower makes the world's most efficient production solar cells - 24%, which result in the most efficient modules of about 20%. This allows SunPower about a 5% advantage in efficiency over other competing crystalline silicone manufacturers whose crystalline solar modules are about 15% efficient. See the Solar Efficiency Limits page for more information.
These high efficiency cells result mostly from the back contact design – a technology pioneered by co-founder Dick Swanson in the early 1980s at Stanford University. The back contact design avoids grid lines of metal on the front of the cell and therefore more light gets converted to electricity. Forming the junction at the rear of the cell, along with a unique surface treatment and backside mirror, allows the cell to capture and convert much more of the sun's energy into free electrons - yielding a dramatic increase in efficiency. All of the above allows SunPower to reduce the silicon cell thickness from a normal range of 200 to 300 microns to about 160 microns and use only about 6 grams of expensive pure silicon per watt. Another side benefit from not having any grid lines on the cell front is to allow SunPower to have an all black attractive panel for residential and commercial customers who are very interested in the appearance of the panels. SunPower in its advertising is attempting to "brand" the black panels.
Every one percent improvement in efficiency leads to about a six percent decrease in fully loaded module cost. So every little improvement is extremely important. Right now every solar cell manufacturer would "kill" for a one percent efficiency improvement. The module efficiency is of paramount importance in the overall cost of a solar installation. A system with 15% efficiency compared to one of 20% will require 33% more panels, 33% more land, 33% more inverters, etc. The 33% deficit in efficiency ripples throughout the whole system cost structure.
SunPower has a vertical integration strategy with quite a few partners: Woongjin Energy for ingots, First Philec for wafers, AU Optronics for solar cell fabrication (see Fab 3 in Malaysia at left), and Flextronics for module manufacturing. Since they also do project development and installation, SunPower has control of their processes and costs from beginning to end. This allows SunPower to emphasize the lowest overall total system cost (including land, all equipment, interest, and installation labor) dubbed LCOE for Levelized Cost Of Energy. For utility scale projects, SunPower has announced a modular type of product called the Oasis Solar Power Block. Oasis comes in one mega-watt increments and can be scaled up to many, many mega-watts.
The Company operates in two business segments: Systems and Components. The Systems Segment sells directly to the end user and includes engineering, land procurement, construction and other services. The Components Segment sells solar modules and inverters to local solar installers including the Company’s third-party global dealer network. As part of its vertical integration strategy, in January 2007, SunPower acquired PowerLight Corporation, a leading global provider of large-scale solar power systems. In February 2010, SunPower acquired Europe's SunRay Renewable Energy. In order to compete with other utility level suppliers, including fossil fuel technology companies, SunPower has announced that it plans to reduce total system costs by 50% by the year 2013.
In 2011, Total, France's huge oil and gas company, and SunPower announced a deal where Total bought 60% of SunPower stock through a tender offer. The price was $23.25 per share which was approximately a 50% premium over the price prior to the announcement. In addition Total has made available $1 billion in credit to SunPower. SunPower continues to operate under its current management. The deal will cost Total $2.3 billion altogether. The $1 billion credit arrangement is extremely important to SunPower in financing large projects. The cost and availability of capital is very important in order to win large projects as most are hard pressed for financing.
Power-One was a public company with 2012 annual sales of $1.02 billion. It was purchased by Swiss ABB during 2013 (see below). The company has two business units - Renewable Energy which is about two thirds of the company and the Power unit which focuses on digital power in the data center arena. We shall be addressing only the renewable business unit as that is by far the fastest growing sector.
The Renewable Energy unit supplies inverters to both the wind and solar sectors. Power-One has gone from 9th place with 3% solar inverter world market share in 2008 to 2nd place with 15% in 2012 according to IMS Research. During 2012 Power-One shipped an impressive 3.6 GW of product. At the end of 2011, Power-One had zero debt and has maintained that throughout 2012. Power-One has headquarters in Camarillo, California and production facilities in Camarillo, Ontario Canada, Italy, Slovakia, China and a new one in Phoenix, Arizona.
Solar panels produce direct current (DC). Almost all customer devices use alternating current (AC). Solar inverters perform three major functions: they convert the current from DC to AC, they ensure that the solar current and voltage are synchronized with the grid, and they perform Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT).
Inverters take the DC power from the solar panel string (typically 300 to 600 volts DC) and invert it to AC power so it can be fed into the grid. The inverter synchronizes its frequency with that of the grid (e.g. 60 cycles) using a local oscillator. It must also match the voltage to the grid voltage. The inverter has an on board computer which will sense the grid's AC current waveform, and output a voltage to correspond exactly to the grid's.
Solar inverters include MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracking) that enables the inverter to extract an optimal amount of power from each solar string by calculating the array's Maximum Power Point (MPP). Each string of solar panels will have its own MPP. MPPT seeks the "unique current" that the inverter will draw from the string in order to optimize power output (power equals voltage times current). To find the point where the string produces maximum power, the inverter uses a trial and error algorithm adjusting the current it intakes in one direction and then samples again in the same direction (i.e. more current). If the power increases, it keeps going in that direction. If the power decreases, it reverses its direction. The energy lost during inversion is converted into heat. (See the Solar Inverters section on the Solar In-depth Page for more inverter information.)
Power-One offers a complete line of solar inverters from a 250 watt micro-inverter for residential systems to a 1.6 MW central inverter for large scale utilities. Power-One inverters have a very wide operating range which enable them to harvest more electricity as the voltages from the solar panels are lower at the beginning and the end of the day. Most inverters have efficiencies between 94% and 98%. Power-One inverters operate at the upper limits of efficiency - approximately 98% for the larger systems. Also, Power-One MPPT operating ranges exceed their rivals which increases the harvest of electricity. Power-One inverters have a reputation for high quality and reliability. Power-One has a world-wide presence with manufacturing facilities in the US, Canada, Italy, and China.
In April, 2013 Swiss engineering company ABB agreed to buy Power-One Inc. for $1 billion. The Zurich company offered Power-One shareholders $6.35 a share. ABB designs and manufactures products used in the solar and automation industries. It makes its own version of Power-One’s inverter that converts solar direct current to alternating current. Power-One's number two position in the solar inverter industry made it an attractive company for ABB to buy at a reasonable price.
Enphase Energy (Micro Inverters)
Enphase Energy, founded in 2006 with headquarters in Petaluma, California, was the first company to market PV micro inverters. Enphase started shipping product in mid 2008 and by Q4 2012 has shipped an astonishing 3,000,000 units! Enphase became a public company in April, 2012 and is traded on the Nasdaq with call letters ENPH.
Remote micro inverters, like the ones sold by Enphase, are mounted on the back of each solar panel and are relatively small (8 x 5.25 x 1.25 inches), weigh 4.4 pounds, and are air cooled. A centralized inverter can be a relatively small box mounted on a garage wall for small residential systems. Or for a utility installation, it could be a huge enclosure, requiring a concrete pad, large fans, and isolation for safety's sake. Centralized inverters convert the DC power to AC power and perform Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT). MPPT enables a solar string to operate at maximum power. (See the Solar Inverters section on the Solar In-depth Page for more MPPT information.) Micro inverters perform the same electrical functions as their big brothers, but do it for each panel rather than the whole solar array. Classical PV string arrays are electrically connected in series with a goal to attain a maximum of 600 volts in the United States (1000 in Europe) and a current of approximately 6 amps. Newly installed strings approximate this ideal quite well.
However as central inverter strings age, they accumulate dust, bird droppings, debris, and at times cloud shading. The affected modules lose power in an uneven way. Since current is a constant in a series arrangement and adjusts to compensate for the lowest performing panel in the string, the power output of the whole string is reduced as the central inverter continues to seek a lower optimum operating point (MPPT) for the somewhat crippled string.
In a micro inverter system with an inverter attached to each module, the system operates in parallel with each module contributing all it can even though some may be partially impaired. This is called "energy harvesting" and Enphase claims it can result in 5% to 25% more power. In one of Emphases' surveys of their PV installers (shown above), 90% of the respondents claimed they recovered 5% or more power and 12% said they recovered 20% or more. While multiple micro converters do cost more than a single converter, Enphase says the increased yield and installation cost savings more than pay for itself. See Enphase video - How Micro Inverters Work.
Since modules are in parallel for the micro inverter system, the voltage drops from approximately 600 volts to a safer 240 volts. There is no single point of failure in a distributed inverter system and the installation is simplified. In case of repair or emergency, individual modules or the whole complex can be turned off even when the sun is shinning. This is not true for centralized inverters, the modules keep operating at high voltage as long as the sun is shining. Also, since each micro inverter module through communication electronics is accessible to monitor performance, a data collection system can be set up to constantly monitor and manage the site. The data is collected by Enphase every five minutes and customers can dial in over the internet and see their individual site's performance on their local computers. This simplifies maintenance and allows for long term performance improvements.
The above are very beneficial advantages to commercial and residential customers with PV systems on their roofs. These features make micro inverters very attractive to smaller installations. As of 2012, the largest micro inverter site was about one mega-watt. For now, it seems as though micro inverters have an advantage in small to medium systems and central inverters will dominate utility scale installations. Enphase is the undisputed leader in micro inverters. For more Enphase information please visit the Enphase Web Site.