Multi vs. mono part 1: Status

Industry Insights

There might be once upon a time in PV world, when makers of multicrystalline (aka polycrystalline) products and monocrystalline worked together.The goal was clear, to survive the harsh competition. The gain was epic. Solar panel price dropped by 85% in six years. And it's still falling at 15% annual rate in last two years, more thrilling in respect of marginal effect. Si-c based panels reached nearly 90% market share by 2016, pushing off road countless companies and technologies on its way to high above dominant position. CIGS, CdTe, a-Si and Nano, are some names of a long list disappearing, or seem so, along a short history. Though it doesn't necessarily prove they would disappear forever. A quick glimpse at what's left of rivals right on the battle field, seems only give us one name, First Solar the CdTe maker, as still standing. 

The halftime report is, Si-c panels, along with wafer and cells, have achieved over 80GW of capacity for each single position by end of 2016, tenfold increase in six years. Over 80% of them is located in China mainland, with split of 50GW of multi and 15GW mono. 

The civil war got heat up recently, when a series of companies announced shutdown multicrystalline lines of all and focused on mono. Some are considered representing tide of market trends, like SolarWorld Germany, NSP Taiwan, and so on. This has ensued from long last shortage of mono wafers and cells on the market since entering 2017, as well as resilient price of the two amidst all others falling (except polysilicon, which will be addressed in other article). 

The rivalry seemed to reach its first climax, surely not the last, since last week when some Chinese top multi panel makers were sort of publicly (social medias, online communities, etc.) blaming authorities for grossly slanting to mono products, or makers, in setting up its heavily government fund subsided solar projects across the country. Faced with wild growth of Si-c solar factories in China over the last years, Beijing government has carried out numerous measures to curb expanding frenzy and push consolidation among PV factories. One of the projection of lately is called "Front Runner Plan", which sets up firm requirements of panel efficiency to keep low end makers out. Annual volume of this project is smaller than FiT based projects, but getting on the supply list of FRP provides not only better profits, but also glory of high efficiency producer. All panel makers swarmed in, driving pursuit of high efficiency products along the whole chain. 

Soon a serious problem appeared. The 2016 FRP requested efficiency of 16.5% and 17.0%, for multi and mono panel respectively (thin film 12%). It turned out, only 20% multi panels across the industry, with common process (4BB, single printing, etc.), are in that league. It provides a meaningful push for the rest to innovate, or just stay out of the cycle. In comparison, mono panels can almost 100% achieve the efficiency requirement, with quite common process in the market (P type, single printing, etc.). It happened to be a largely favor to mono panel factories. Here comes the problem: it loses the sense of "Front Runner" when everybody can do it. Mono panels started to beat multi in FRP project auctions. As result, many panel factories turned to increase mono lines, some single wafer factories even rushed to move down to mono cell/module production. Only they don't have to care much about high efficiency. While looking to peers at multi side, from wafer, cell, down to panel, the expanding craze has been largely abated since this FRP came around. They started to lose market share to mono panels. 2016 was a big jump of market share for mono makers, from long lingering around 15% vs. multi, to over 25%. People are seeing over 35% of mono for 2017. 

And there are something looming in the movement. Pushed by FRP projects, multi makers wasted no time to improve efficiency of wafer and cell. That's how HP (high performance) wafers have come along as an individual product, and new technologies have been pushed to cell process lines more vigorously than ever. Namely PERC, IBC, MWT, black silicon, and so on. Meanwhile, mono panel makers and their upstream suppliers (cell, wafer, consumables, etc.) have just got into new frenzy of expansion. Only difference is that high efficiency is not top mission for them, at least for time being. After all, we are seeing multi and mono move in directions increasingly apart. Multi factories have got big strains like never before to improve core quality (crystallization, cell process, etc.), leading to the fact that HP products stay strong and expensive while low efficiency ones falling fast. Mono was just suddenly short of supply, especially for wafers. The shortage intensified throughout almost whole year of 2016, until now of 1Q'17. This is because people just flocked in to buy mono wafers and cells, and efficiency mattered little. 

Taiwan, the second largest region of cell capacity, have been hit, pretty off guard, by this wave of mono movement in China mainland. Faced with totally open markets, Taiwanese makers have started efforts of high efficiency much earlier than peers in China. They might have lost competition to China for wafer process. But cell still has its thin edge, especially when it comes to high efficiency and some advanced process like PERC. Nevertheless, TW has fallen far behind China in prospect of PV supply chain ecosystem, given the fact that it has almost zero local solar projects, and almost zero in-house downstream production. TW factories are selling big portion of their cells to Chinese panel makers. To make the products they are also heavily dependent on wafer supply from China, especially so for mono wafers. Some changes took place since 4Q'16 when Chinese factories suddenly increases purchase of mono wafers (not necessarily cells as most build vertical lines from cell to panel). Moreover, some mono wafer factories largely cut down outside supply while increasing in-house cell/panel capacity. As result, mono wafers not only fell further behind supply, but seemed to have disappeared overnight. 

PV experts have pointed out that under current circumstance, the rational efficiency difference between multi and mono panel is 1.5%, rather than 0.5% of now. It's reported that authorities have realized this. They are considering revision of FRP criteria, by 2Q'17, to make FRP project a fair game for those making high efficiency products.

Author:Xiaodong(Bond) Wang Former Director Int'l Business Development

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