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SNEC 2020 Wrap-Up I: Solar cells

August 12, 2020 PV InfoLink

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The majority of the solar cells exhibited at this year’s SNEC are p-type PERC cells. With wafer size advancing rapidly, the trade fair saw a wider variety of cell formats, which ranged from 158.75mm (G1), 163.75mm, 166mm (M6), 182mm (M10) to 210mm (G12). The prototype of next generation cells measuring 217mm was also unveiled. Comparing with previous editions where cell sizes were consistent, this year saw a wider range of cell sizes due to rapid shift in formats.

Comparing to previous editions, n-type technology was less hyped this year. As efficiencies of p-type cells are brought closer to that of n-type cells, p-type modules can reach a power output of 500W-plus or even 600W-plus with the applications of larger wafers and module technologies. While the development of n-type technology faces stiff headwinds from p-type products, most manufacturers see n-type as the next-generation technology. 

SNEC exhibition 

Mono PERC cell

Cell efficiencies were initially predicted to hit bottleneck this year. However, applications of multi-busbars and improvement in PERC+ technology have helped push mono PERC cell efficiencies to more than 22.2% recently. Cells displayed this year feature efficiencies topping 22.6% and 23.2% for higher efficiency ones, indicating that there’s still room for improvement in p-type PERC cell efficiencies in the future.

SNEC exhibition cells

Cell and module manufacturers are turning to thinner wafers to optimize wafer costs. Tongwei, for example, is able to produce cells with 165µm thickness. However, the breakage rate remains the major concern as the industry is transitioning to larger format cells. At present, the thickness of commercially produced G1 cells is 175µm and 170µm, while M6 cells are mostly sized in 175µm.

SNEC exhibition cells

N-type cell

Larger format cells aside, some cell manufacturers showcased n-type cells this year. Tongwei and Aiko Solar are the two cell manufacturers that have been actively engaging in developing n-type cells, whereas Shunfeng and Uniex are uncertain about their technology roadmaps. With p-type cell efficiencies continuing to increase and wafer sizes going bigger, module power output saw a huge leap-forward. In contrast n-type cells face higher capex for equipment and materials. Moreover, such cells have to overcome technique barriers such as size enlargement and cell cutting process. All these factors hinder manufacturers’ investment in n-type technology.

SNEC N-Typecell

Manufacturers that have invested in HJT are mostly in the pilot phase, while those engage in TOPCon are vertically integrated companies that can achieve stable production of TOPCon cells comparing to the high-cost HJT cells. These manufacturers have not only shipped TOPCon modules, but also earmarked new capacities for upgrading to TOPCon in the future. TOPCon capacity expansion is expected to exceed that of HJT in 2021.

One highlight of solar cells exhibited this year is perovskite tandem cells. The perovskite honeycomb-shaped back-contact (HBC) tandem solar cells displayed by Aiko, for example, combine HJT, IBC, and perovskite technologies. The SENC 2018 and 2019 both saw tandem cells, and there were slightly more manufacturers presenting such cells this year. Although it’s still difficult to mass producing layered cells, manufacturers’ R&D efforts in future technology are continuing.

SNEC- aiko HBC cell

On the module side, fewer displays of n-type modules point to the shift of manufacturers’ focus to size format trend this year. For now, n-type technology is mostly developed by Tier-1 manufacturers, whereas smaller manufacturers have slowed their R&D in such technology. This means that the gap between Tier-1 and Tier-2 manufacturers starts to emerge.

SNEC N-type module

This year saw little change in manufacturers that exhibited n-type modules, with Risen, Tongwei, GS Solar, Jinergy, Akcome, Astronergy, and Suntech showcasing HJT modules. Trina, which introduced TOPCon modules last year, unveiled HJT modules that feature wafers measuring 210mm this year. 

There were fewer manufacturers that displayed TOPCon modules comparing to last year; Jolywood and Jinko were the major companies that exhibited such modules. SPIC this year focused on IBC modules.

SNEC N-type module

Conclusion 

Amid the larger wafer trend cell manufacturers have demonstrated their adaptability. However, costs, yield rates, and consumer acceptance remain to be assessed. As it will take time for capacities of PV glass and major segments of the supply chain to catch up and modules to be certified, PV InfoLink projects that M6 will remain the mainstream format in the second half of 2020 through the first half of 2021. 

It’s worth noting that it was more cost effective for vertically integrated companies to procure cells than producing on their own during June and July. Purchasing cells can also avoid risks incurred during the shift in sizes. Therefore, the first half of the year saw these companies slowing down their in-house cell capacity ramp-up.

However, vertically integrated companies are reconsidering expanding cell capacities due to recent surge in cell prices, and their movement should be watched closely. Under the scenario that new cell lines will come online in the second half, cell capacities will become the most excessive in the supply chain. This will exert pressure on shipments of cell manufacturers and accelerate elimination of Tier-2 and 3 cell makers as well as older production lines; size variants is unable to maintain the cell business. Indeed, cell manufacturers are paying the way forward for stronger business. For example, Tongwei is focusing more on modules and Aiko unveiled its plan of establishing a photovoltaics innovation center dedicating to technology development and innovation during SNEC.

Not much breakthrough was seen in n-type technology at the trade fair this year. Nevertheless, Tier-1 manufacturers are said to maintain their TOPCon capacity expansion plans because costs for TOPCon equipment have decreased significantly this year. But new production lines won’t come online in large volume at once this year. Therefore, HJT and TOPCon cells will both develop at a slow pace and one should observe who truly brings new n-type capacity online and the applications of materials over the second half of the year. For the short term, TOPCon capacity will gradually surpass HJT.

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