Originally a semiconductor physicist, Zhengguo Li spent his early career after graduation in research and production of monocrystalline silicon ingots. Armed with an MBA from Xi’an Jiaotong University, he founded in 2000 Xi’an Xinmeng Electronic Technology Co., Ltd., the predecessor of Longi Green Energy Technology Co., Ltd., which he now leads as its President.
At the Solar Power International trade show, which takes place from Sept. 10-13 in Las Vegas, LONGi Solar, the world’s largest vertically integrated monocrystalline silicon cell/module manufacturer, is introducing its 360W+ solar module series, which marks its entry intothePV3.0 Era. TaiyangNews talked to LONGi President Zhengguo Li about his plans for PV3.0.
TaiyangNews: When looking at the developments of solar modules in the year 2017, what’s the major improvements?
Li Zhenguo: To start very generic – I believe that 2017 will be remembered in solar history books as the year the third photovoltaics generation of modules was launched – in short: PV 3.0.
TaiyangNews: What’s PV 3.0?
Li Zhenguo: If you look into the history of solar modules, in fact there have been three generations of solar modules so far, which characterize the progress in the development of PV power generation. While PV modules have improved in many fields over time – including quality, performance, durability, cost – the advancements have been an evolutionary process. Before the year 2000, the first generation of solar modules was used, between 2000 and 2016 was the period of the second generation, while in 2017, generation PV 3.0 took over.
TaiyangNews: But what distinguishes PV 1.0 modules from PV 2.0 and PV 3.0?
Li Zhenguo: The power rating has been the key differentiator of solar modules – and that’s what module customers pay for. To put it simple – PV 3.0 includes solar panels of over 300 W, PV 2.0 comprises modules between 100 W and 300 W, and PV 1.0 are modules below 100 W.
TaiyangNews: Can you be a bit more specific?
Li Zhenguo: Well, PV 3.0 means 60-cell modules with over 300 W nominal power and 72-cell modules exceeding 360 W, and if bifacial technology is used, even up to 400 W. These power levels were first reached in large-scale GW-size commercial mass production in 2017 – that’s why the PV 3.0 era is starting this year.
TaiyangNews: What’s the reason for mono modules now reaching an impressive power rating of 360 W or more?
Li Zhenguo: A key driver to support researchers and module manufacturers reaching such high power levels is the Chinese Government’s Top Runner Program – the world’s only gigawatt-size solar incentive scheme that awards projects based on module rating and efficiency. Without the directions of China’s Top Runners Program, which targets 8-10 GW in 2017, the solar industry would not have moved so quickly to advanced high-efficiency cell concepts, such as PERC, and moved toward monocrystalline cell technology – that’s the only safe way to exceed the 360 W level for 72-cell standard modules in mass production today.
TaiyangNews: High efficient solar modules are one thing, but in the end the investor is interested that the solar system generated power at low cost for over 25 years…
Li Zhenguo: Indeed, the solar industry’s increasing focus on high efficiency combined with high quality and reliability will make sure the cost for solar power generation (LCOE) continues to decrease. Higher efficiency modules mean a higher power density, thus the system needs less balance of systems (BOS) and less land, which saves on cost.
TaiyangNews: … and investors are also looking for attractive returns.
Li Zhenguo: PV 3.0 is the phase that solar systems will become the lowest cost power generation technology, taking into account that the first solar systems with PPAs towards $0.03 or even less will be grid-connected soon, and new solar utility-scale power plants being already cheaper than wind power and new fossil fuel plants in many regions today. PV 3.0 will enable projects to provide the returns that investors need to back the rapid growth of solar power generation not only in developed countries and emerging markets but also in developing countries .
Let’s imagine that annul installations will increase to 100 GW or more, and cumulative global capacity will reach 1 TW in a little more than 5 years. That would be a great milestone, showing that solar could be about level with the expected capacity of coal power plants in China, which we need to replace as soon as possible as well as other fossil fuels, so that the world can combat climate change successfully.
TaiyangNews: We have now talked quite a bit on PV 3.0, but what exactly were the PV 2.0 and PV 1.0 phases?
Li Zhenguo: The PV market’s priorities and dynamics were different in the period between 2000 and 2016 – the time of generation PV 2.0. In 2000, the modern period of photovoltaics started with the launch of Germany’s feed-in tariff law. FiTs quickly spread over Europe, turning the Continent into a solar pioneer that enabled the growth of a global production industry. At the beginning of that phase, the annual solar world market was a little over 200 MW, PV modules were still very expensive – costing around $4 per W, and the largest manufacturing lines had capacities of around 70 MW.
TaiyangNews: One criterion of PV 2.0 were module power ratings between 100 and 300 W?
Li Zhenguo: Yes, the module technology of choice was primarily multicrystalline silicon, which enabled production of modules with a typical power rating of around 265 W in 2016 and standard monocrystalline panels reaching up to290W. In these 16 years from 2000 to 2016, the industry witnessed a rapid fall in system installation costs that could be reflected in record-low solar power generation prices – falling from around $1/kWh to less than 0.10$/kWh in Germany, while the global solar market grew over 300 times to 76 GW in 2016.
TaiyangNews: To complete the history on PV, can you also briefly summarize what you mean with PV 1.0?
Li Zhenguo: The PV 1.0 period represents the PV industry from its inception in the 1950’s to 2000. While the first part of that era was characterized by space solar applications, it was followed by terrestrial modules used in off-grid applications, and then strong research activities and big plans during the times of the oil crisis, although no big solar industry or sustainable market materialized at that time. At the end of PV 1.0, in 1999, total installed capacity was around 500 MW, on-grid had just overtaken off-grid, while modules still had a very low power rating of less than 100 W.
TaiyangNews: But back to 2017, what’s LONGi Solar’s strategy for the PV 3.0 era?
Li Zhenguo: First, we want to keep and build out our position as the world’s largest mono wafer manufacturer. In 2016, the LONGi Group started its expansion project in Yunan Province – investing in 10 GW of mono ingot and wafer production capacity. Currently, we offer around half of our wafers on the market, the other half is used in-house – a ratio we want to keep. By the end of 2017, we plan to have 12 GW of monocrystalline wafer capacity and 6.5 GW of module capacity, which we plan to increase to 20 GW for wafers and 10 GW for modules by 2019. We have even teamed up with a partner, Tongwei, to set up a 50,000-ton polysilicon factory. In addition, we are also expanding into projects – after building 200 MW in China in 2016, which we own and operate, we are on a good way to install around 850 MW this year.
TaiyangNews: That’s about expansion – what about product development?
Li Zhenguo: Vertical integration is key to understand the whole process – and control quality to guarantee top quality products. We are dedicating the highest share of turnover among all solar companies to R&D, currently around 7 to 8% and we work hard on technology leadership, exploring all relevant cell technologies. We believe in mono-crystalline technology, because our expertise in wafer manufacturing and our mono-module based PV power plants show us each and every day that monocrystalline siliconis the basis for both the highest efficiencies and lowest LCOEs. Next year, our technology roadmap targets mass production of 21.6% mono cells and 72-cell solar modules of over 380 W. And there’s much more to come from LONGi in the PV 3.0 era – actually, it has just started this year.
TaiyangNews: Thank you for the interview.