Chinese Solar Cells Cheaper To Manufacture Because Of Larger-Scale Of Manufacturing Industry, Not Cheaper Labor, Research Finds

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China’s solar cell manufacturing dominance is down more to its possession of a larger-scale manufacturing base — and the supply-chain benefits that accompany it — than it is to cheaper labor and government support, according to new research from the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The new findings are the result of a new “bottom-up cost model” created to investigate the base-level causes for the recent shift from a US- and Europe-dominated photovoltaics manufacturing market to one dominated by China. According to the researchers, this recent shift can be largely negated “through future innovations in crystalline solar cell technology, which have the potential to equalize prices by enhancing access to materials and expanding manufacturing scale across all regions.”

china solar panels
Image Credit: China Solar Cells via Wikimedia Commons

The press release explains the new work:

To carry out their economic analysis, they adopted the perspective of a multi-national firm evaluating locations for a solar panel manufacturing facility in either the US or China. They predicted how the firm would decide by examining a factor called Minimum Sustainable Price (MSP) for monocrystalline silicon solar panels manufactured in each region. The MSP represents the minimum price at which a company can sell its products while providing an adequate return for the company.

Using industry-validated figures from the first half of 2012, they estimated an MSP of $1.19 per Watt for US solar panels, compared to $0.91 per Watt for Chinese solar panels, representing a price advantage of 23 per cent for a China-based manufacturer.

But when they examined country-specific factors for this price difference, they found that China’s historical advantage of low-cost labour was counteracted by other regional influences, and that the dominant reason behind its success is primarily the scale of solar panel manufacturing in the region, enabled by access to capital and a less restrictive business and regulatory environment.

In simple terms, the density of production in the country gives Chinese manufacturers access to cheaper materials and machinery than those available to American or European manufacturers. And it’s these cheaper materials that give Chinese manufacturers such a distinct advantage with regard to manufacturing costs — giving them an MSP advantage of, on average, $0.28 per Watt.

Senior Analyst at NREL and primary author of the new study, Al Goodrich, stated: “These advantages, which are not indigenous to China, could be replicated by manufacturers based in other countries if comparable scale could be achieved. But for solar power, there’s a chicken and egg problem: consistent demand is needed to provide manufacturers with access to the capital required to achieve large-scale production, but large-scale production will be necessary for solar power to compete as an energy source without subsidies.”

“Future innovations in silicon solar panels — which may be most quickly and effectively realized through global collaborative effort — have the potential to reduce key investment risks for manufacturers. This would enable manufacturing on an equivalent scale across most regions, bringing the benefits of high volume production to them all,” Goodrich added.

Associate professor at MIT and co-author of the new study, Professor Tonio Buonassisi, continued that thought: “The ‘holy grail’ is a photovoltaic module that gives the biggest bang for its buck — with high efficiency, lower materials costs, streamlined and scalable manufacturing and unquestionable reliability. The photovoltaic modules you can buy today have a few of these attributes, but not all of them together.”

“The glass industry between the 1880s and the 1950s underwent innovations that streamlined the process to one integrated tool, where you put feedstock in one end and get one product out at the other end,” Buonassisi added as a comparison. “We envisage a similar evolution for solar panel manufacturing. Practical innovations in photovoltaic technologies will accelerate the convergence of solar power and traditional energy sources in the future, in terms of both price and scale.”

“This common goal, for the benefit of nations across the world, is an opportunity for international cooperation that leverages our complementary strengths.”

The new research was just published in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Energy & Environmental Science.

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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