Reports came out this week that Germany, France, Switzerland, and possibly other European nations are mulling a plan to pool efforts and establish a combined massive-scale solar cell manufacturing operation, inspired by the aerospace consortium Airbus. The concept has been kicked around for a few years now, most recently at last fall's EU PVSEC conference by Eicke Weber of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE).
The reasons for developing a bigger, stronger European solar PV footprint are well-known. Despite an infrastructure with research and supply-chain capabilities to support solar manufacturing, European solar cell and module makers have not evolved to match falling prices and the rise of China's solar PV dominance, Fraunhofer ISE points out. Thus they propose a new consortium: X-GWp, with core members including the Fraunhofer ISE, the National Solar Energy Institute (INES) of France, and the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM), as well as several unnamed European manufacturers. The goal: "demonstrate that the technologies developed in Europe can also be manufactured here if suitable approaches are taken," and ultimately implement the technology worldwide, particularly in countries possessing high insolation levels where solar power is most attractive, to address a market seen surging from 45 GW this year to 100 GW or more by the start of the next decade.
Whether this X-GW fab is the best way to fix Europe's solar PV slump -- if it can be fixed -- is another question. Ten years ago, even five years ago, such dreams of a gigawatt-scale European PV fab seemed revolutionary and inspired many European Commission-backed projects, points out SolarBuzz VP Finlay Colville, but they have always fallen short to get to the next step: who will pay for it. Today a number of Chinese PV manufacturers have been scaling up in multiple-hundreds of megawatts, 200-300 MW and even 500-MW or more, collectively pushing well into the multi-gigawatt level to drive the global market, he points out.
Some have suggested that China's PV dominance is indeed not set in stone, and the key to the future of solar PV manufacturing will be clustering massive-scale operations in several key regions. But there already are solar PV firms, including electronics firms getting up to speed in solar (Jabil, Flextronics, Foxconn, TSMC), that "know very well how to scale up a commodity business" and are already scaling up to multi-gigawatt operations, including in Europe, points out Stefan de Haan, principal analyst at IHS.
"Nobody can argue with the best intentions of the European advocates to have a supersized fab with record-busting panel powers," Colville said. But given China's ongoing push toward multi-GW output, "it may simply be too late in the game."
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