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Worldwide solar cell production growth flattens but still gigantic in 2011

April 01, 2012 Written by 
Global PV cell production grew to an impressive 37.2 GW in 2011, according to a market survey by PHOTON International - The Solar Power Magazine, for a 36-percent increase over the 27.4 GW produced in 2010.
But the annual survey also reveals a dramatic reduction in year-on-year growth. Compared to a record 120-percent jump in 2010, the 2011 cell output was the PV industry's lowest growth rate since a 34-percent increase in 2003.

The survey also shows a continuation of Asian dominance, with six Chinese manufacturers in the top 10 - with Suntech Power in first place for the second year in a row - and two from Taiwan. For the first time since PHOTON International began surveying solar cell producers, the top 10 did not include any solar cell producers from Europe or Japan.

"The days of solar cell production in western countries are numbered," says Michael Schmela, editor-in-chief of PHOTON International. "Like other commodities, solar cell production will continue its rapid shift to low-labor-cost countries in Asia, especially China." In 2008, only 33 percent of solar cells were made in China, a share that grew to an impressive over 57 percent in 2011.

The shift in cell manufacturing to Asia will get a further push as consolidation increased momentum in 2011, when demand - which the most optimistic analysts estimate was around 28 GW last year - could not catch up with supply. While consolidation has primarily hit Western companies so far, resulting in the first large bankruptcies and job cuts at many production plants, the strong decrease in product prices has affected companies across the board, including Asian cell manufacturers, even causing several of the smaller ones to stop production. "PV companies had better find partners, new parents or subsidiaries to be able to develop new business streams and expand into up-and-coming solar markets. Otherwise they won't have the strength to weather the storm," says Schmela. 

With many of the major markets preparing for cuts in their solar funding programs, the imbalance in supply and demand won't change in the short term. Cell producers are still predicting a combined production of around 52.5 GW in 2012 - a 41-percent growth year-on-year. Overall, they are planning to increase capacities by 19 percent to around 69 GW in 2012, after raising capacity by 57 percent to nearly 58 GW by the end of 2011. "While the cell makers' ambitions to expand are much more modest than a year ago, the real production number will not likely increase much beyond 37 GW, if at all," says Schmela. But much, he adds, depends on how the two major markets - Germany and Italy - finally revise their funding schemes.

Chinese cell manufacturers will continue to dominate in 2012, probably taking over the first five places in the rankings. The two Western companies - First Solar Inc. and SunPower Corp., both headquartered in the US - that are likely to remain in the top 10 not only will descend the ladder, both will produce the majority of their cells in Asia.

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