Energy 2.0

Polysilicon Based Solar Module production

Posted on: July 8, 2008

The Polysilicon Based Solar Module production process involves four steps in chain event:

  • Use the raw material sand (SiO2) to produce a very pure form of silicon called polysilicon.
  • Use polysilicon to produce wafers and ingots.
  • Use wafers and ingots to produce solar cells.
  • Use solar cells to produce solar modules.

Manufacturers are yet to immerse in vertically integrating the whole process. There are a few getting their feet wet – Trina Solar (TSL), Yingli Green (YGE), Suntech Power (STP) and Canadian Solar (CSIQ).

  • Trina produces solar modules from polysilicon and has plans in the offing for very large scale polysilicon manufacturing.
  • Yingli also has business plans along similar lines. They are yet to announce any plans to produce polysilicon.
  • Suntech is focused on the wafer to module business currently.
  • Candian Solar started out focused solely on producing solar modules from cells but since then has expanded to wafer to solar cell production line and has announced plans for a polysilicon to wafer and ingot line.

The table below compares these 4 manufacturers:

Manufacturer

SunTech Power

Trina Solar

Yingli Green

Canadian Solar

Level of Vertical Integration

Wafer to Module 100%

100% Integrated Ingot &  wafer, Cell and module business

100% Integrated Ingot &  wafer, Cell and module business

Cell Capacity at 25% of Module. No Ingot and Wafer Production Capacity

Module Capacity Y 2007

540MW

150MW

200 MW

400 MW

Module Capacity 2008 (Projected) 

1 GW

350 MW

400 MW

400 MW

Suntech has the edge in most aspects with the closest rival Yingli lagging well below 50% in terms of integrated capacity. On the raw material procurement side, Suntech has procured most of its needs through long-term supply contracts. Yingli may be close too although the exact figures remain unannounced. Trina is at 70% for 2008 and may encounter high spot pricing to procure the rest of the raw material. Canadian Solar claims to have procured 90% of the raw material. Raw materials needs are different for each company. For Canadian Solar it is a mixture of polysilicon, wafer/ingots, and solar cells, for Yingli and Trina it is just polysilicon and for Suntech it is wafers.

Since the solar modules produced by these manufacturers are technically similar, the difference in profitability is largely determined by the raw material acquisition costs and efficiency in the production supply chain. Vertical integration along with raw material acquisition through long-term supply contracts is the solution the bigger manufacturers are opting for. The downside to long-term supply contracts is the risk of raw material prices falling as supply approaches or exceeds demand.

There is a couple of business risks associated with the whole group:

  • Competition from pure-play solar manufacturers.
  • Competition from solar manufacturers that use a material other than polysilicon as the base raw material.

Pure-play solar manufacturers have to their advantage the ability to concentrate on one step thereby realizing better efficiency and ultimately better profit margins. Such solar companies include MEMC Electronic Materials and LDK Solar in the polysilicon and wafer production business and JA Solar Holdings and China Sunergy in the cell to module business. Eventually, some of these manufacturers may become part of vertically integrated businesses.

Competition using raw materials that are alternatives to polysilicon comes from manufacturers such as First Solar, which uses cadmium telluride (CdTe) and Ascent Solar, which uses copper-indium-gallium-diselenide [CIGS]. There are also a number of other technologies that are in early stages of development. First Solar has profit margins well beyond the polysilicon based producers because of lower raw material and production costs. The projections are for the company to grow at an even faster rate keeping cost advantages intact. However this is a moot point. The real challenge for the polysilicon manufacturers is to reduce costs in the production chain swiftly to compete with all such technologies successfully. The biggest advantage that polysilicon manufacturers have is the abundant availability of raw material at the very basic level – silica (found as sand or quartz)

Canadian Solar and Trina Solar have the biggest upside, given the low forward P/E. An announcement regarding procurement of the remaining raw material requirements at reasonable prices for 2008 should allow Trina Solar to reduce the gap in valuation. Canadian Solar is projected to have very low net profit margins. Skepticism surrounding the net profit margins the company will realize going forward is a major reason for the valuation gap.

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