Are locally produced solar modules the future? | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW

“In the front of the factory we start with a normal pane of glass, and out the back comes the finished module,” says Sarah Neubert.

Wearing blue rubber gloves to keep off the dust, she runs her fingers over the solar glass and checks the film at the first stage of the fully automated production chain.

Neubert is responsible for quality control at Meyer Burger’s new solar module factory in Freiberg near Dresden. Behind her are mobile stands and machines gleaming silver and white in a space the size of two soccer fields.

Glass panes are transported on conveyor belts, high-speed machine arms assemble solar cells, film, frames and junction boxes, which then are glued together under high heat.

Workers in a solar module factory discuss their work

Production at this factory is computer-controlled. Sarah Neubert oversees the process, her colleague programs the system

At the end of the production line, each module is checked with a flashtest: Is the voltage correct? If not, Neubert, her shift supervisor and the computer experts search for the error as a team.

“A lot of it is automated. But we can’t do completely without people here,” says Neubert.  

Cutting edge technology and high efficiency

Extremely powerful high-performance solar modules have been manufactured in Freiberg since June using heterojunction SmartWire technology. These modules produce roughly 20% more electricity per square meter than standard modules.

“This is a technological shift. We can compare this to the transition from 4G to 5G in mobile communications,” Gunter Erfurt, chairman CEO of Meyer Burger, explains.

This more efficient production technology also requires fewer resources and fewer steps in the manufacturing process. Meyer Burger also produces the key component of the modules, the solar cells, in a factory near Leipzig, 150 kilometers (93 miles) away in Freiberg.

Modules and new jobs for the region

Production in Freiberg started out with a capacity of 0.4 gigawatts (GW) of solar modules per year, and this is expected to increase more than tenfold in the next few years.

A closeup of the production line solar module factory

Complex, high-tech machines do their part at this Meyer Burger solar cell factory in Bitterfeld-Wolfen near Leipzig

Starting in 2026, the company plans to sell modules with a total capacity of 5 GW annually. That is about as many solar modules installed across Germany last year. The company has plans to sell to the German, European and US markets. 

As production grows, so does the need for labor. Even though machines do most of the work in the module factory, Neubert and another 200 colleagues work around the clock. Another 150 are employed in the solar cell factory.

By 2026, the company expects to have around 3,500 full-time jobs in total.

Neubert is excited to be helping to build the new production facility in her hometown of Freiberg.

“The solar industry has always interested me, which is why back then I did my apprenticeship here in Solarworld,” she says.

But the German cell and module manufacturer Solarworld lost the price war against Chinese competitors and went bankrupt in 2018, leaving the factory building in Freiberg empty until the new production moved in.

Good timing for new solar factories

The factories in eastern Germany mark the Swiss company Meyer Burger’s entry into solar cell and module production.

A photo of Sarah Neubert

Sarah Neubert oversees quality control in this production hall

Until now, the company has been the market leader in building specialized machines for this type of solar factory. In 2020, they decided not to sell the high-performance heterojunction SmartWire technology to other manufacturers, but to enter instead into module production directly, with their own proprietary machines and technology. 

Their locations in eastern Germany already had qualified personnel and a good infrastructure. And it was a particularly good time to invest in new factories, says Erfurt.  

“Photovoltaics have become the cheapest way to generate electricity. That wasn’t the case five years ago. And certainly not 10 years ago. In the meantime, the price development has made huge leaps so that there are no longer any barriers,” he says.

CEO Gunter Erfurt at the opening of the new factory in May 2021

CEO Gunter Erfurt (m) opens the factory in Bitterfeld-Wolfen along with Saxony-Anhalt state premier Haseloff (l) and Economics Minister Armin Willingmann

Last year, photovoltaic systems with a capacity of 139 GW, were newly installed worldwide, up from 115 GW in 2019. In 2021, according to estimates by Bloomberg Energy Finance, this number will be as high as 209 GW. Last year, 99% of all solar modules worldwide  were produced in Asia, the vast majority in China.

“We believe that this must not and should not be the case,” Erfurt says. 

“We are talking about energy infrastructure here, and that should be developed where the products are being used.”

Local production saves costs

Transporting modules from Asia to Europe accounts for about 10% of the cost.

“It is complete nonsense to ship solar modules halfway around the globe. Modules should be manufactured in regional markets. This is how energy sovereignty can be established at a low cost with leading technology,” says Erfurt. 

Erfurt is certain that most countries “will want to produce solar modules themselves at some point” in order to reduce dependency on imports. Another advantage of regional production, he adds, is stronger customer loyalty: locally-produced modules are more valued and are in greater demand.

Rising demand worldwide

“My prediction is that modules with a capacity of 500 GW will be produced worldwide in 2025, 1,000 GW in 2030 and many thousands of gigawatts per year thereafter,” says renowned solar researcher Professor Eicke Weber. The former president of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems is now president of the European Solar Manufacturing Council.

One reason for the strong increase in demand is the climate crisis and the need to quickly replace coal, oil and natural gas.

Two factory workers lift a solar panel

High-quality products made in Germany, an important criterion for some customers

The other important factor is the unbeatably low price: “We can now produce solar power in southern Europe for 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour, and soon for just 1 cent.

This means that all other types of electricity production are quickly becoming of basically no interest,” says Weber.

More than 10 years ago, China recognized the importance of photovoltaics as a source of energy earlier than any other government, and has been supporting the development of its solar industry ever since.

Manufacturers in Europe, and many other countries, have not had comparable support from their governments. However, other companies besides Meyer Burger are planning local module factories to meet the growing demand for solar power systems in regional markets.

In Turkey, for example, a new module and cell factory with a capacity of 1 GW was opened last year. In India, one manufacturer is planning a new 2 GW factory in Gujarat. And in Wroclaw in western Poland, a solar factory for the production of organic solar cells was opened in June.

In southern Spain near Seville, regional module production of 5 GW per year is underway to supply the large solar parks in the region. This is where Europe’s cheapest electricity is produced, thanks to the particularly strong sunlight there.

This article was adapted from German.

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