Tackling the Key Industry Challenges in 2017

For years, the PV industry encountered numerous challenges to solve the difficult equation of sustainable growth. Markets went global so fast that looking back five years in the past the PV markets and industry were significantly different. With more than 75 GW installed in 2016 per the PV Market Alliance, the growth of the global PV market was accompanied by a significant price decrease for PV modules. These two events are usually not expected to happen together since an increase in demand is supposed to trigger a price increase. The complete explanation is complex and the increase of production capacities is only one part of the equation. Concisely, the PV industry jumps from one challenge to another, and more is expected to come.

The first of these challenges is the need for understanding quality issues. Looking at official positions from industry stakeholders, one could believe the PV industry suffers from acute schizophrenia. On one side, we claim for years that PV plants are a low-risk investment where the understanding of failure causes has increased the reliability the highest level. On the other side, the question of quality has never been more discussed than these days. The reality lies as always in between these two extremes. Many root causes of failures have been identified and corrected and the other ones are being studied. With new materials, new installations procedures, new technologies, the PV industry evolves and requires a continuous effort to adapt its products. In that respect, the working group of SOLARUNITED devoted quality is exploring ways to input the industrial part of the PV value chain with performance and failure information from the field.

The second challenge requires to properly manage the end of life of PV systems for several key reasons. The first one that has been explored in depth in the last years, especially in Europe with key regulations, paves the way for a sustainable recycling of PV components at the end of their lifetime. However, this is not the end of the story: end of life could also mean adapting business models, repowering PV plants and creating a second life for PV components. Exploring the possibilities for recycling opens the door for more competitive business models were the valuation of the product at the end of each of its life cycles becomes a key aspect of the financials. The working group of SOLARUNITED dedicated to End Of life is starting its activities.

The third challenge imposed to the industry is the globalization of the markets and the PV industry. From an industry concentrated in Europe for European markets, PV shifted to a global market with dozens of key countries today and 100 in a few years from now, on all continents. The industry which moved rapidly to Asia is questioning itself about localization vs globalization, amidst growing political constraints and declining prices making shipment relatively more expensive. The debate is again vivid between tenants of vertically integrated manufacturing and specialized or localized production. This is the subject of the third working group SOLARUNITED is setting up. This is also one of the subjects that our partner, the European PV technology & Innovation Platform for Photovoltaics will highlight during its annual conference organized this year in Brussels, May 19, about PV Manufacturing in Europe.

Obviously, the challenges behind the PV industry are numerous and cannot be summarized in these three key questions. Business models for decentralized PV production, including self-consumption enablers and storage, access to electricity markets and merit order issues, technology choices, and many other subjects will contribute to shape the PV industry in the coming years.

Gaetan Masson, Becquerel Institute

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