Friday, December 12, 2008

Astronergy Aims at Thin Film PV Market

Yang Liyou, CEO of Astronergy, a Chinese photovoltaics startup, discussed his company and China's PV scene with Hedy Qian, managing editor of Semiconductor International China.
Crystalline silicon-based PV technology is relatively mature, and much of the future growth will come from improving thin-film PV efficiencies, said Yang, who previously worked at BP Solar.

Hedy Qian, Managing Editor, SI China -- Semiconductor International, 12/11/2008 10:25:00 AM

Starting from crystalline silicon photovoltaics products with plans for the high-end thin-film solar cell market, Astronergy Inc. (Hangzhou, Zhejiang) launched its line for making amorphous/microcrystalline silicon (a-Si/µc-Si) tandem PV modules in November this year.

Yang Liyou, CEO of AstronergyAccording to the company, the initial average conversion efficiency will reach 9%, and the goal is to achieve a 10% average conversion efficiency in the near future. "Whether in terms of technology or in terms of scale, Astronergy is leading China's market for high-end thin-film PV modules," said Yang Liyou, who is both the CEO and CTO of Astronergy. Yang spent 20 years in thin-film R&D, including an earlier role at BP Solar. He holds 18 patents in the field.

SI China: Can you talk about the current status and future prospects of the industry from two perspectives - thin film and crystalline solar cell?

Yang: Market demand is closely related to the quality and price of PV products. Price can constrain the demand to some extent. With the continuous development of technologies — in terms of the commercialization process of crystalline silicon technology, conversion efficiency, and production and manufacturing levels - China's PV market is closely following the beat set by the global PV market. But the crystalline silicon technology is relatively mature, and at the current technological level, future growth will slow down.

The thin-film cell belongs to another product category, and the materials used are completely different from those used for crystalline silicon products. When the market is in urgent need of a new generation of products with a better performance-price ratio and a lower cost to meet the demand for PV products, it's obvious that the future of the thin-film cell is very promising.

In the marketplace, the gross profit margin is close to 50% for thin-film cells, whereas it's only about 15% for crystalline silicon cells. With the increased production of polycrystalline silicon, the cost of crystalline silicon cells also will be going down. However, the final cost of the thin-film cell will still be much lower than that of crystalline silicon cells.

SI China: For Astronergy, which specializes in thin-film cells, how is the thin-film cell business doing? And what kind of role will crystalline silicon cells play in the future?

Yang: Crystalline silicon products are currently the mainstream products in the marketplace. They can be launched quickly and be easily accepted by the market. The strategy of Astronergy is to start from crystalline silicon, and then to move into the PV market quickly, to create its own customer groups. This will be very helpful for our future development. The thin-film cell business is still in the preparation stage, but the technology is essentially already in place - the a-Si/µc-Si tandem technology will be used. Globally Astronergy is among the earliest manufacturers to enter the high-end multinode thin-film cell field. Most domestic companies in the thin-film cell field now choose the single-junction amorphous silicon technology, which is relatively simple, to start from. The a-Si/µc-Si tandem technology is much more difficult, but the products will have better functions, and their average conversion efficiency will also be higher. In the initial stage, after the thin-film products become stable, the average conversion efficiency will be around 9%; and in a very short time, a 10% average conversion efficiency can be expected through technological improvement.

Currently we are focusing on transferring foreign thin-film experiences and technologies into China. We are very confident that we can bring the products out of the laboratories by building a mature commercialized production line with a high conversion rate.

SI China: Can you please talk about the impact of the global financial crisis on China’s PV industry?

Yang: I think that the impact on China is relatively small. Before the financial crisis, I had said that China needs to jump out of the low-level processing industry and actively pursue structural transformation. In the future, new energy will become a significant industry in the world and PV is a very good cut-in point, because this industry is especially suitable for China, and China does not have a big technological gap with the world in this field.

SI China: Can you talk about the roadmap for Astronergy in the next two or three years?

Astronergy will emphasize thin-film PV technology.Yang: At the end of November, our first intermediary experimental line was installed and underwent a test run, and we will have our own products early next year. At the beginning the output will not be very high. First of all, we will reach our preset goal for average conversion efficiency. The mass production line is expected to be installed and test run in the first quarter of next year, and will go into mass production in the middle of next year. This is our first goal. After this goal is reached, Astronergy will increase the production scale as soon as possible, and the production capacity will reach 60 MW in 2009 and180 MW in 2010, and will become higher and higher after 2011. Of course, the growth rate may be adjusted based on some unexpected factors. If the market needs a higher production capacity, we can grow faster. In the next 3-4 years, the production capacity can be expected to reach 300-400 MW.

I believe that by 2011 the thin-film cell from Astronergy will be able to take a significant share — 20% or even higher — in China’s market for high-end thin-film cells. Within a period of time, the thin-film market will shift from the low-end thin films to the high-end ones, and in this process, we hope that we can capitalize on our advantage in production capacity accumulated in the initial stage to go faster in realizing the economy of scale in mass production.

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