Some experts claim that the cost reductions achievable through a fully automated thin-film manufacturing process can never be achieved through a crystalline process. The crystalline process needs more feedstock material and energy to produce solar cells. "The solar future will hinge upon the cost of a solar kWh and have less to do with the efficiency of a solar cell" says Edwin Koot, CEO of global platform Solarplaza. "Solar energy will not become cheaper merely by increasing solar cell efficiency, but more by driving down the cost of the cell manufacturing process".
Thin-film market leader First Solar has proven this to be a successful strategy. It has achieved the world's lowest manufacturing cost per Watt of module power ($0.93 per Watt) and is on its way to becoming the world's biggest manufacturer. "The turnkey cost of a solar PV system from First Solar modules is approaching the level required at which solar electricity can be produced at a cost competitive with electricity from the grid in sunny regions, without the need for subsidy," says Edwin Koot. "First Solar is setting the benchmark, and the crystalline silicon cell manufacturers will have a hard act to follow in terms of achieving comparable cost reductions. The question is whether they will be able to remain competitive despite the advantages of the higher efficiency crystalline cells and the reduced space needed for a solar system."
Q-Cells is not the only major company investing in thin-film technology. The world's number two, Suntech Power, is also building a thin-film production line. And leading thin-film production equipment manufacturers such as Centrotherm are following Applied Materials by offering both turnkey solutions where they were once focused on crystalline technology.
The CEOs of Q-Cells and Suntech Power, the President of First Solar, the CTOs of Centrotherm and Applied Materials, and other experts will discuss these strategy shifts at The Solar Future conference on 26 May in Munich.