CLEANTECH: Silicon Still Gone

By Published On: May 9, 2008

Contrary to what has become popular belief, several solar energy representatives insist that there’s no polysilicon glut and that the market for the material required in solar energy systems remains as tight as it has been in years. Solar industry experts said that polysilicon, which is a key component used to make photovoltaic panels, is likely to be in short supply for at least another year or two. “I don’t know who’s spreading this rumor about a glut,” said Ron Kenedi, vice president of Sharp Solar Energy Solutions. “All that talk about a glut is wishful thinking.” Although there has been excess polysilicon elsewhere in the world, particularly Norway and Germany, that has not occurred in California or the United States, solar industry insiders said. Some investment analysts predicted a product oversupply because of numerous companies going into the solar business. That is expected to drive polysilicon prices down as supply starts to outstrip demand. Current supply-demand conditions in the polysilicon market have, however, lead to solar companies signing more long-term contracts with better delivery and payment terms for polysilicon. These multi-year contracts reflect expected supply increases and thus set a price discount over time. The average price of polysilicon is expected to decrease in the long term as a significant portion of the new manufacturing capacity under construction comes on line. However, Julie Blunden, vice president for public policy with solar design and manufacturing company SunPower Corp., said that even though her company has a long-term contract for polysilicon production that starts this month, it will be some time–perhaps years–before supply and demand are parallel. “The situation in polysilicon is that we’ve been short since 2005,” said Blunden. SunPower began operations in 2004. She added that new suppliers entering the market would make a difference. “By the end of 2010, there could be two, three, possibly five times the supply,” she said. In a conference call last month, SunPower chief executive Tom Werner said the company expects its polysilicon costs to be down 10 percent this year as a result of delivery under its new contracts. The long-term predicted supply boom resulted in one of the largest solar companies, Trina Solar, which has a U.S. base in Texas, to scrap plans to build a $1 billion polysilicon plant last month. The company said it now believes that it can get enough of the material from its suppliers. Trina is shifting its strategy to focus more on lowering module manufacturing costs and technology development and advancement. In the short-term, however, supplies are tight enough that it’s keeping some solar companies from expanding. “There’s so much unmet demand that we can’t even get to the places that need solar infrastructure,” said Kenedi, a 20-year solar industry veteran. “We’re still occupied with the developed world.

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