TaiyangNews Solar Module Innovations Conference 2023 concluded with a fire chat between Guoqiang Xing, CTO of Tongwei Solar’s PV Business, and TaiyangNews Managing Director Michael Schmela. Here is summary of their conversation.
TaiyangNews: Silicon has been a great cash cow for companies in the past few years, and Tongwei has expanded massively. Can you explain how you started with silicon? And where are you planning to go?
Guoqiang Xing: Tongwei started the polysilicon business somewhere around 2006. We have our own technology. The new capacities that we are ramping up. We have the lowest energy consumption with the best quality. Also, the timing for the capacity expansion gave us a higher market share in 2022. As our Module Product Development Head, Jason Xia had mentioned that last year, our overall capacity for polysilicon had reached 230,000 metric tons (MT). This year, we will be increasing it to 350,000 MT. We have even more ambitious expansion plans for the next 2 or 3 years.
TaiyangNews: And what is your strategy because you have teamed up for some of the silicon capacity with other players?
Guoqiang Xing: Yes. We want to expand our capacity with our strategic partners. For some of the new plans, we do have minority shares, which belong to our customers. That is part of our strategy.
TaiyangNews: If we look at this silicon segment, prices have generally dropped quite a bit over the last few months, especially towards the end of 2022. How do you see that? Are you worried? And were you expecting it? Because everyone knew that a lot of capacity was coming up, and lot of people were expecting the prices to come down much earlier. But it was a steep decrease.
Guoqiang Xing: Yes, it’s market driven. It’s a balance between supply and demand. When new capacities are released, you’re going to have some price drop. But then the lower price will stimulate a bigger market. So, if you check the price for the first weeks of the year, the price of polysilicon has jumped somewhat back. We are not worried about the price. We want to be the best and the most competitive producer for polysilicon.
TaiyangNews: I think it’s great that this is happening, because for a while silicon was a clear bottleneck. If we loot at solar’s learning curve, we will see probably an annual global TW market before the end of 2030. And we will need a lot of silicon. So, it’s good to see you are strongly expanding in this field. Your other leg is cell production. You have established yourself next to silicon mostly as a cell producer – silicon cells, hardly any modules and no wafers, ingots. So how do you see your cell business? How does it fit into your strategy?
Guoqiang Xing: Tongwei acquired the asset from LDK back in 2013, and it took us 9 years to ship. And we shipped, I think, over 100 GW of solar cells cumulatively and became the world’s largest cell supplier. We surely have been a cell player, but when we acquired the asset from LDK, we also got hold of the module part. We have been doing R&D around modules and module production. It is just that the volume is not high. But we shipped several GW of modules last year. And right now, we really want to expand our business into modules and become vertically integrated.
“We will continue to serve our pure module customers the Tongwei quality cells”
TaiyangNews: You are a vey well-known brand for solar cells, especially outside China. There are a lot of module manufacturers who rely on you and appreciate your quality. How do you see yourself in the future? Do you still want to serve pure module makers with your cell products?
Guoqiang Xing: The answer is definitely Yes. If you look at our capacity expansion plan, our cell production volume will be higher than for modules. So, we will continue to serve our pure module customers the Tongwei quality cells.
TaiyangNews: And that will be across the different technologies? As you progress into new technologies, you will also offer it to other companies, right?
Guoqiang Xing: Definitely. We are settling ourselves in PERC, HJT and TOPCon.
TaiyangNews: Last year you were the first company to pass the 100 GW cell shipment level. What were the 3 most remarkable cell trends you observed in 2022?
Guoqiang Xing: Firstly, PERC remains the predominant product, but the wafer size has shifted. The 158 mm size is almost completely out. The 166 mm or M6 format is also in the process of being phased out. So, you will see the 182 mm and 210 mm wafer sizes being predominant. That’s what’s happening in PERC. The second debate last year was around the emergence of TOPCon. Today, everybody’s talking about multiple of GWs of TOPCon expansion. And this is really happening. The third one is HJT, which is also making a lot of noise. We have many players jumping into the HJT regime. I feel it’s a rapid-changing-year in technology-for-solar-cells.
TaiyangNews: What I found interesting is that a lot of people would first go to M6, then M10 and then G12. And then there were companies directly are rushing to G12. And we have also heard that Trina has moved to G12R, which is somewhat a step back to basically get a little bit closer to M10. Because it’s a sort of a combination to fit into the module standard format of M10 based products. What are you seeing here in terms of development?
Guoqiang Xing: The sizing has been kind of chaotic but I think everything will set. There will be some niche product for niche applications, but as you go for the long term, the mainstream product will remain and will emerge. If you look into the past, when we migrated from M2 to M6 – either mono or multi – there were a lot of concerns with the bigger format of modules. But what happened now? It’s all LCOE driven and technology will mature. As to the lack of bigger modules, the 210mm 66, half cut module for utility scale power generation, the per watt production cost is lower. So, the BOS cost is lower, the LCOE is lower. I personally think the bigger module will prevail.
TaiyangNews: And do you think, from a technology point, G12 and 210 is the end? Or can we go beyond that?
Guoqiang Xing: We need to be very cautious to say about something has come to the end.
“Whatever Tongwei does, they want to be the biggest, and they want to be the best.“
TaiyangNews: You said you inherited module production when you took over the LDK assets. But now you’re really increasing modules dramatically. By end of 2023, you plan to have about 80 GW module capacity and 100 GW cell capacity. And for you, that also means a huge expansion step from 2022, in particular for modules when you had 14 GW capacity. So, why now and why so massive?
Guoqiang Xing: We expand our capacity based on our technology excellence and manufacturing excellence. Tongwei has 40 years of proven track record. Whatever they do, they want to be the biggest, and they want to be the best. I think with modules, we have accumulated enough knowledge; we understand the technology, we understand the product. And by building up such big volume of capacity within a year, we actually can enjoy the so-called late-comer advantage. If you listen to our previous speakers (see links to presentations here), talking about modular technology, we enjoy most of it – I mean with the latest best equipment and the latest best technologies with the Tongwei cells inside. Everybody knows that we have the best quality solar cells. That gives us much confidence in expanding our capacity, and becoming a major player in module business.
TaiyangNews: So, why not increase – at least somewhat, the ingot and wafering part as well?
Guoqiang Xing: Well, 15 GW wafer and ingot pulling capacity is not small. If we can have the opportunity and good technology, we will expand our capacity. But for the time being, we will stay put with 15 GW.
TaiyangNews: Indeed, if we look at Europe and America, this wafer capacity is probably still 10 times as much as what both the two continents have combined. Do you partner then at the wafering level with others? Because, of course, through all this vertical integration of Tongwei, there are also partners who are turning more and more into competitors. Are you seeing challenges with that?
Guoqiang Xing: For the polysilicon, you already mentioned, we are partners with our customers. And for wafer and ingot, we are also partners with some key customers as well.
TaiyangNews: These are also long-term partnerships in this segment?
Guoqiang Xing: Yes. There is also ownership in wafer and ingot companies.
TaiyangNews: Let’s go back to cells and talk a little bit about the two high-efficiency technologies. As you said, everything now is about TOPCon. Let’s talk about, maybe, TOPCon and HJT. Because you were one of the first ones to really invest into a very big pilot line for HJT and put a lot of research into that. You also mentioned that we will be seeing quite something happening in the HJT business. When did the point come when you decided to go for TOPCon now, rather than HJT, because there are not many of the few big companies, who have been thinking of HJT seriously so far
Guoqiang Xing: From the R&D point, I think everybody understands that TOPCon and HJT are the top choices, beyond PERC. We have been very active in developing TOPCon and HJT technology. It is just that we started HJT earlier and for TOPCon, we started with the most challenging technology. We started with G12 wafer size, and with PECVD for polysilicon and tunnel oxide deposition. Those key equipments were the very first set for equipment suppliers. We had to really find and solve all the problems associated with this technology. Then we shifted from G12 to M10. That’s for TOPCon. And then for HJT, we have 2 R&D power lines, each with 250 MW of annual capacity. Then we have built China’s very first 1 GW HJT line. We started with M6 and now we are in the process of upgrading to G12, and also with the nano-crystalline deposition technology for the silicon passivation.
TaiyangNews: Will these products be commercially available as cells individually?
Guoqiang Xing: We have been selling M6 HJT cells and our customers are also coming to us to buy 210 HJT cells. And we’re also going to develop our own HJT module products.
TaiyangNews: Can you reveal for when that’s planned, or is it too early?
Guoqiang Xing: It’s not ready yet. For HJT multi-GW production, we still need to do a few things. If you ask me, what are the bottlenecks, I will say there are only three bottlenecks: The first one is cost. The second one is cost. And the third one is also cost. We have already demonstrated 720W of HJT modules. It has quite a gap above the TOPCon module, in terms of wattage. If we can reduce the cost by employing new metallization technologies, even new module technologies, I think we will have a good chance of ramping up the HJT technology at a bigger scale.
TaiyangNews: But if you look at the cost parameter, and have a comparison between HJT and TOPCon, when will it make economic sense? Because if you look at the rooftop market, this difference probably doesn’t matter so much as here, the big chunk is installation costs. And if you can brand it nicely as having a somewhat higher efficiency, it probably works. That’s also how I understand the HJT companies in the market are advertising and selling that product. So, when can there actually be a big jump so that you can decrease that cost gap which is in the two-digit percentage. When can that be closed?
Guoqiang Xing: It will take some time. It’s silver, indium and all those things. Copper does not come easily and takes a lot of R&D to get to that point of replacing silver paste. But we are not the only ones developing the copper plating technology. I think with more effort and time, it’s going to come to a point that we are going to see a more competitive cost-effective HJT technology.
TaiyangNews: We’ve seen PERC is still there. The production capacities are there. At the TaiyangNews Module Innovation Conference, the talks were mostly about TOPCon. However, a lot of today’s production is still PERC….
Guoqiang Xing: I want to make a point here. If I look back at our own cost and performance projections for the past 12 or 18 months, with regards to PERC, I think we grossly underestimated the rate for PERC technology to reduce its cost and also improve the performance. So, that will make PERC technology competitive and that is why for the high volume TOPCon production, we have to go very aggressively in reducing silver paste consumption and wafer thickness. You can enjoy a module premium, but the cost between PERC and TOPCon is a still a concern for all of us.
TaiyangNews: Even a year ago, several experts were saying that there’s nothing left to improve PERC efficiency anymore. But if you look at modules, it was quite impressive, that the best ones are now reaching 21.7%, as shown in our monthly commercial module efficiency rankings (see Top Solar Modules Listing – April 2023). Are you seeing now somewhat an end to this or do you think there might be again surprises?
Guoqiang Xing: I mean from the technology point, you can calculate LCOE or you can calculate the result, the speed for the efficiency ramp. But in the real world, it is all about competition. Right now, we are talking about over 200 GW of TOPCon cells in production… Some people will predict there will maybe over 300 GW of TOPCon production in 12 to 18 months right. With that kind of volume rushing into the market, it will definitely challenge PERC’s competitiveness or the market share.
TaiyangNews: From a technology point of view, if you look into the crystal ball for 2023, what are you seeing for this year?
Guoqiang Xing: I think for this year and maybe for next year, the technology evolution will be at a very fast pace. So, we need to improve the top line technology no-matter what – LP or PECVD. The premium needs to be at a reasonable level, so that the EPC players and also the module manufacturers can really benefit from the new technology. It will take some time to settle HJT. Lot of attention is being paid to this technology and you have heard the multi-GW capacity expansion announcement from different players. I think from production and from marketing, HJT definitely will try to come into the mainstream.
TaiyangNews: What do you envision for Tongwei’s solar module brand now that you come with this massive capacity? How do you see Tongwei as a company at the at the end of this year?
Guoqiang Xing: We want to be a major player in modules. Our customers, the previous customers, and also maybe the new module customers, will know Tongwei for its quality. For polysilicon and solar cell, we have the best quality. And for the module, I think we also have the best quality. Because in Tongwei, our management’s focus, on a daily basis, is for safety first and quality second, then comes the rest. It’s in our blood…in the gene of the company.
TaiyangNews: Thank you for the interview
The complete interview can be viewed on TaiyangNews’ YouTube channel, here.