The aspiration to establish solar cell and PV module production outside Asia is fading. With plummeting prices of PV modules and reports of Chinese manufacturers hoarding up to two months' inventory, the industry is in turmoil. Ambitious projects for gigawatt-scale PV cell and module factories in the US and Europe face delays or cancellations. Compounding this, Western markets are burdened with overstocked inventories, bought at prices now double the current market rate.
This tumultuous scenario in the solar industry is causing not just physical cracks in solar modules but also a deeper disruption in the supply chain. Albert Einstein's famous advice to "Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler" resonates here. It suggests striving for affordability in PV modules without compromising quality. In the quest for cost-effectiveness, a limit exists beyond which the product and industry suffer.
Why have PV modules become so affordable?
Solar energy has been the most rapidly expanding and cost-effective power generation technology since 2015. Its appeal partly lies in competitive pricing, driven by market dynamics and advancements such as reduced kerf losses, improved cell arrangement, less silver usage, thinner glass, slimmer frames, larger modules, and lower energy costs. These factors, combined with market oversaturation, have benefited consumers, especially in decentralized solar rooftop systems and utility-scale installations. However, this trend has started revealing its downsides, particularly for large-scale operations.
The True Cost of Inexpensive PV Modules
In the last decade, PV modules have grown in size, featuring thinner frames and glass, and shorter mounting rails. The industry saw a shift in 2017 when 2-millimeter-thick hardened glass, less robust than the 3.2-millimeter fully-tempered standard, became more economical. Concurrently, bifacial, double-glass modules became the norm in utility-scale solar plants.
Today, most large-scale solar farms use bifacial, double-glass modules with 2-millimeter-thick glass on both sides. Unfortunately, recent installations report breakage rates as high as 10%.
These cracks lead to warranty claims and legal disputes, costing time, money, and industry credibility. The pursuit of ultra-low-cost PV modules is not only detrimental to consumers but is also fragmenting the solar industry, impacting suppliers, engineers, manufacturers, builders, and plant owners. This underscores the importance of balancing affordability with quality in PV module production.
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