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15 April 2021

Meyer Burger to ship first heterojunction modules in July

Meyer Burger has now truly entered the solar manufacturing business, having signed a distribution partnership with Solarmarkt to distribute its modules to commercial and industrial customers in Switzerland. This means Europe has managed to re-enter the solar domain, almost entirely controlled by Chinese companies.

Starting from April 27, orders can be placed with Solarmarkt for Meyer Burger’s modules, which are heterojunction (HJT); a high-efficiency form of silicon PV which takes efficiency ratings to between 24% and 25% – about one-tenth more powerful than the high-end mainstream solar product on the market today. That the first distribution deal is in Switzerland, which has limited room for ground-mounted projects, may reflect the value of cramming more power, from a more lightweight product, into rooftop space. The C&I sector will still provide the necessary scale in the country, with hundreds of MW installed annually.

Heterojunction has a huge efficiency advantage, but the technological complexity of heterojunction, with a delicate manufacturing process that requires a different production line, has limited its uptake so far. Among the new manufacturing capacity being brought online in China, Heterojunction is still the exception: there’s 50 GW of production capacity planned from Akcome, Tongwei, Trina, JA Solar, and many others – not much by Chinese standards. The Chinese Photovoltaic Industry Association expects that heterojunction will have risen to only 20% market share by 2025.

This means that European players – which still retain a technological lead – can use heterojunction to enter solar manufacturing in the face of Chinese dominance, especially as the efficiency ratings of silicon PV – especially non-heterojunction PV – begins to stagnate as it gets closer and closer to the practical limit of 26.7% for the technology.

No-one has more of a technological lead in certain aspects of the solar industry than Meyer Burger, which developed the first band saw for the solar industry in 1999, and became an indispensable worldwide supplier of manufacturing equipment for the next twenty years, expanding into the provision of machinery for all parts of the supply chain.

Over time its knowledge became less exclusive, and a change of strategy was announced in 2020, according to which it would become a solar manufacturer itself, with a target of 1.4 GW cell and 800 MW module production capacity by next year. Its technological edge is now being marketed in the form of “Smartwire” – a unique form of cell interconnection that cuts the cost of heterojunction, which has so far been the other major obstacle limiting its adoption.

Meyer Burger is also a major shareholder in Oxford PV, the world-leading perovskite manufacturer which should have a product commercially available by the end of this year. Many of its relevant patents will last until 2039 – and its own move into heterojunction was enabled in part by the expiry of certain patents held by Panasonic.

In 2020, the largest single Heterojunction manufacturer in Europe was Hevel Solar – with 340 MW and 841,000 modules sold, along with a supply of cells to customers in India, Germany, Japan, Austria and Poland. The company gets almost all of its business from the Commercial & Industrial and residential segments, but has also intriguingly mentioned “VIPV” – vehicle-integrated photovoltaics. In due course it should be possible to fit several kW on the surface of a car, though this will likely only be auxiliary power.

It’s interesting that, Hevel Solar was Europe’s leading heterojunction manufacturer – though it may now be overtaken by Meyer Burger or others such as REC Group, which has proposed a 4 GW factory in France, and has had some involvement with Meyer Burger and its SmartWire. Another Russian company, EnCORE PV, a subsidiary of Hevel Solar’s owner Ream Management, was reported as developing a 1 GW heterojunction plant in the Kaliningrad exclave last September. Even while Russia’s own renewable energy ambitions remain minor, it’s on track to hold a high-quality manufacturing base in the future, even if it mostly exports its products.