Industry Collaboration in Troubling Times Strengthens the Solar Supply Chain

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[Today’s guest post comes to us from Bettina Weiss, Vice President of the PV Business Unit at SEMI. Bettina oversees SEMI’s global photovoltaic initiatives in Europe, Greater Asia, and the Americas, including PV expositions and conferences, public policy/advocacy efforts, manufacturing standards development, technology roadmap activities and market research.]

I’ve experienced an interesting combination of conversations, events, and “aha” moments related to the solar PV sector in the past few weeks, starting with the PV Rollout Conference in Boston in early February and continuing with the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit in Washington, D.C. in early March.

In my presentation in Boston, I discussed the potential for PV market dynamics and market volatility to be mitigated through industry collaboration and a collective approach to shared problems. Standardization, for example, has produced enormous cost savings in many industrial areas, from automobile to semiconductor manufacturing, and PV will be no exception. Standards, combined with technology roadmaps, give industry stakeholders two robust mechanisms to counter market volatility.

In SEMI’s 40+-year history, standards—and collaborative industry efforts—have played a significant role. The volunteer experts enrolled in our SEMI International Standards Program are living testimony to the power of working together, agreeing on pre- or non-competitive issues to reduce cost and improve process efficiency. This collective approach enables focus and resources to go towards R&D and technology innovation and helps calm the volatile PV landscape.

Technology roadmaps provide a long-term, strategic view of an industry’s path into the future. The 15-year assessment of the semiconductor industry’s future technology requirements, the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS), has been playing an important role in advancing the performance of integrated circuits and related products—with a high level of industry collaboration. Similarly, the International Technology Roadmap for PV (ITRPV) is designed to make the adoption of solar energy easier, cheaper and more efficient. It originated in a group of European crystalline silicon (c-Si) solar cell manufacturers to inform suppliers and customers and set a basis to intensify the dialog about required improvements and standards. Since then, the ITRPV has grown to a supply-chain wide effort identifying technological barriers and requirements for advancement of c-Si solar cell manufacturing; our third ITRPV update will be released at the European PV Fab Managers Forum on March 25-27 in Berlin, Germany.

The PV landscape has changed dramatically in the past several years—as was evident at the PV Rollout Conference. Right now, the industry is grappling with overcapacity, changes in feed-in tariffs (and not the good kind), and a playing field that is characterized by dwindling margins, Chapter 11 announcements, trade disputes and acquisitions. Photon Consulting just published a study that shows large-scale PV producers by step of supply chain and predicts a bright future… for those who survive 2012.

Having recently attended the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit outside of Washington, D.C., I feel this bright future is seriously challenged—at least here in the United States. A comprehensive, transformative federal energy policy remains elusive; panelists across the board lamented the lack of muscle in R&D spending compared to other nations, and were vocal about the risk of losing manufacturing and, in the long run, R&D and IP to investment-friendly locations overseas.

Much remains to be done if we are to advance the global mandate for generating, deploying and using renewable energy sources for a sustainable future, but I am hopeful that SEMI member companies—equipment and materials suppliers, cell and module manufacturers, EHS and policy professionals and many more—will prevail through collective, collaborative efforts that focus on the right areas: cost reduction, enabling and disruptive technologies that move us forward, and government support to help us bridge remaining gaps.

What are your thoughts on the challenges for the solar PV industry in the coming year—do you feel hopeful? Concerned? A mixture of these? Please comment.

About author
I'm CSE's former Director of Marketing and Communications. During my time at the Center, I launched the Cleantech Notes blog.
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