Tristan Erion Lorico, VP of sales and marketing for PV Evolution Labs, joined Episode 36 of the Factor This! podcast to break down an evolving market for solar manufacturing. Subscribe whereever you get your podcasts.
When Tristan Erion-Lorico started out in the solar industry, a 16.5 MW module order warranted a press release.
A lot can change in a decade.
Today, such PR fanfare is reserved for the multi-gigawatt factory announcements, which seem to come at a weekly clip. That’s due in part to an overwhelming demand for modules in the U.S. and new federal incentives that are encouraging domestic manufacturing.
Moreover, trade disputes have throttled global module supply, and gigawatts of panels are tied up in ports due to links to human rights abuses.
These conditions have created “a total mess” in the market for solar modules, as Erion-Lorico puts it, and have led to a flood of new, largely unknown manufacturers hoping to pounce on the demand opportunity. Buyers have little choice but to import modules as the U.S. works to ramp up domestic production over the next several years.
Solar module manufacturers turn to third-party testing firms like PV Evolution Labs, where Erion-Lorico is vice president of sales and marketing, to prove that their products are up to snuff for the U.S. market.
Erion-Lorico joined Episode 36 of the Factor This! podcast to provide insights into who is trying to enter the market and what to expect as the industry evolves.
“Everyone wants manufacturing in the U.S. but we’ve seen time and again that it takes longer to get these factories online and being able to produce defect-free modules,” Erion-Lorico said. “I think that’s going to lead to a lot of orders not being filled and some painful times to ramp up this domestic production.”
PVEL’s Product Qualification Program (PQP) tests a module’s long-term performance and reliability beyond standard certifications that check for front-end quality. The firm tests for factors such as light induced degradation, thermal cycling, damp heat, backsheet durability, mechanical stress, hail stress, and field exposure.
PQP results have become a prerequisite of sorts for foreign module manufacturers to sell into the U.S., as tax and debt equity investors typically require developers to procure modules that have undergone the firm’s tests.
Do you know what’s in your module?
Making sense of the new players in solar manufacturing can by dizzying for buyers.
Take, for example, American Hyperion Solar. The California-based company is a unit of Runergy, which has established production facilities in Thailand.
Hyperion made its splash into the U.S. market on Jan. 3, when it announced a 1.65 GW PERC module contract with a “leading” U.S. utility-scale solar developer. The company is undergoing PVEL PQP testing.
Hyperion’s existing facilities in Southeast Asia have 6 GW of high-efficiency cell capacity and 2 GW of module capacity. The company plans to add 7 GW of N-type TOPCon cell capacity and 7 GW of TOPCon module capacity this year.
PVEL is working to vet other up-and-coming manufacturers like Dehui Solar from Vietnam; Emmvee, Premier Solar, and Goldi Solar from India; SolarSpace from China; and Meyer Burger from Switzerland.
Meyer Burger, the equipment manufacturer and supplier turned module producer, is establishing a cell and module manufacturing facility in Arizona with an initial capacity of 400 MW and potential to scale to 1.5 GW. The company has already secured a supply agreement with DE Shaw Renewable Investments for 3.75 GW-5 GW of heterojunction modules beginning in 2024 and extending for four years.
PVEL’s PQP test isn’t pass or fail. Manufacturers are provided with the testing data and are free to share it with buyers as they see fit. And while PVEL doesn’t release the data publicly, many manufacturers opt to share positive results as a “badge of honor,” Erion-Lorico said.
PVEL names the top performers in an annual scorecard and anonymizes the results from manufacturers who don’t want to share their data.
The 2022 scorecard featured some of the top names in solar module manufacturing, including Jinko, Trina Solar, JA Solar, Qcells, REC, and First Solar.
Evolving solar module technology
The vast majority of modules manufactured and imported into the U.S. contain PERC cells. Monocrystalline PERC solar modules make up around 95% of global manufacturing. But a transition is underway toward higher-efficiency cell types TOPCon and heterojunction (HJT).
Tunnelling oxide passivated contact (TOPCon) solar cells are gaining commercial interest due to their potential for higher efficiency. An n-type cell is doped with phosphorus, which has one more electron than silicon (thus making the cell negatively charged). The first solar cell invented by Bell Labs in 1954 was n-type. Even so, the p-type (positive) structure became more dominant.
HJT cells are intended to combine some of the best features of crystalline and thin-film cells. The technology uses a high-lifetime n-type wafer and plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition of amorphous silicon layers on the front and back. HJT cells are naturally bifacial, and electron and hole extraction from the device occurs across two materials: (1) a transparent conducting oxide that is coated onto the front and back a-Si layers and (2) the metal contacts, which are usually either screen-printed silver pastes or an electroplated metallization.
Solar manufacturers in China and Southeast Asia are already making the switch to TOPCon and HJT. Erion-Lorico predicts it will likely be 2-3 years before these technologies begin to make a sizeable impact in the U.S., but the shift is coming. And it could be a bumpy introduction for the design.
“It takes a few years for module designs to get stable in terms of their long-term test results,” Erion-Lorico said. “Some manufacturers, we prove what they claim: this technology is better and you will only get positive benefits from this. Others, we find out that they need to learn a thing or two.
“Those are the risks that continue for TOPCon and HJT.”
TOPCon and HJT are more delicate cell technologies than PERC, he added. If those layers suffer from corrosion or other degradation mechanisms, they can break down. It is also more difficult to manufacture these new types of cells, with a higher risk of defects during cell production.
While the technology evolution is positive, Erion-Lorico urged module buyers to be aware of the added risk.
He suggests maintaining a pipeline of module alternatives while the U.S. continues to ramp up domestic production, and as module manufacturers work through new technology challenges.
“As equipment improves, you can produce modules with the required reliability, but it’s going to take some time to vet these technologies and make sure that what’s being sold is performing as expected,” he said.
PVEL forecasts that the cost of goods sold for bifacial TOPCon modules will be lower than mono PERC modules by the end of 2024. HJT module manufacturers would need to find meaningful cost savings or reach an efficiency that significantly exceeds TOPCon in order to achieve cost-per-watt parity, according to the firm’s research.