Signs of solar life

Applied Materials

Applied Materials talks up its solar game at EU PVSEC, VDMA members begin to see end of PV equipment downturn

Last week’s Silicon Planet-shaking news of the Applied Materials-Tokyo Electron merger (acquisition?) was enveloped by a cone of near-silence regarding the future implications for the solar units of both companies, as I noted in a Curator’s Desk post. The EU PVSEC conference and expo kicking off this week in Paris finds sponsoring non-exhibitor AMAT at least acknowledging its solar assets by trumpeting new developments in its PV equipment portfolio via a pair of press releases as well as a modest handful of technical presentations at the event. The announcements show the company continuing to innovate on the solar front, making it seem unlikely that AMAT plans to pull the plug on its PV efforts anytime soon.

The AMAT PV news with the most gravitas revolves around its next-generation 3000wph-capable Solion XP ion implantation system. The launch is part of the company’s strategy to position itself as a leader in the growing wave of materials and equipment providers and cell manufacturers attuned to the inevitability of high-efficiency (as in low 20s), low-cost (as in ~50% less) N-type crystalline-silicon cells. As the PR explains, “high-volume manufacturing of N-type cells requires advanced technical capabilities that include precision patterning and high-quality boron doping to eliminate process steps and simplify manufacturing. Solion XP technology with in-situ patterning precisely controls dopant depth, dose and placement of phosphorous and boron, enabling highly efficient activation and lower overall thermal budget for advanced cell structures on N-type substrates.” (For a deeper dive, a more-detailed technical presentation/press briefing accompanying the announcement can be found here.)

In a brief story at DigiTimes, AMAT’s Wesley Skinner is “quoted” as saying (before plugging the Solion XP platform) that he does not expect “global PV production capacity…to significantly increase in the near future and therefore there will not be any large PV capital expenditure before 2015. However, first-tier crystalline silicon solar cell makers in the U.S., Japan and Taiwan are expected to continue R&D investments to hike energy conversion rates.” Although some market analysts believe that 2014 will mark the beginning of new upsurge in PV capital expenditures, a new VDMA survey of German PV equipment manufacturers tracks somewhat with Skinner’s more dour assessment.

The German Engineering Federation (VDMA’s Anglicized name) poll found an improving but still tenuous order situation among its solar machinery membership. Some 43% of those polled said they had seen improvement in their order books during the third quarter of this year, while 48% said their bookings were unchanged. Despite the slightly sunnier results, 2013 as a whole is expected to show a 12% decline in turnover (AKA revenues), mainly because of the poor business climate during the early part of the year. Nearly 9 out of 10 companies (89%) noted blow-average capacity utilization rates, and order backlogs tucked in at about three months, compared to 5.6 months for the German equipment machinery sector as a whole. Next year should be a bit better, according to the PV tooling companies polled, with the consensus forecasting an 11% uptick in turnover.