Solar module manufacturer Longi is carving out market share in the utility-scale sector as developers wrestle with the grid and competitors throw up challenges.

For PV module manufacturers, the competition for a share of the action in utility-scale projects is intense. The Clean Energy Council estimates more than 5.5GW of solar projects worth nearly $10 billion of investment are under construction, or close to it, in Australia. They are all founded on contracts with technology suppliers, who in turn are obliged to deliver vast amounts of panels in a business climate ravaged by covid-19 and unexpected shortages of raw materials.

Longi Australia head of business for utility projects Tommy Hyun has seen dramatic shifts in conditions in the past year alone. Last year he says it was not common for developers to select modules, but from early 2020 he says developers changed tac and are now heavily involved in selecting the module supplier. This shift is a result of cooling ambitions for utility-scale solar in Australian as congestion in the NEM and labour constraints saw the collapse of RCR Tomlinson, a major EPC, and the retreat of others from the sector, including Downer.

“Many developers are heavily involved in choosing the technology and module supplier,” Hyun says. “EPCs, yes, they are involved, but right now it is the IPP [independent power purchaser, or developer] that is more heavily involved.”

Tommy Hyun says Longi’s clients are favouring bifacial panels for about 90% of utility-scale projects.

Risk and raw materials

The risk to buyers of any long-lasting, fast-changing technology is that orders will be placed ahead of further breakthroughs in performance. For solar manufacturers, the task is to build loyalty in a competitive market where contracts are growing larger every year. Only premium module suppliers can deliver at a scale that satisfies utility-scale projects, Hyun says, which means developers and EPCs have a keen interest in each manufacturer’s “product roadmap”.

Forward planning for delivery is fraught with risk, where the supply chain can experience shocks linked to shortages of raw materials. Around the middle of this year supply of silicon, the primary ingredient in PV wafers, was impacted after an industrial accident at a plant which supplied 10% of global supply. The incident will affect the price of modules until next year, he says.

Another problem affecting all manufacturers is a shortage of glass in China. “It is a huge problem,” he says, “and it is beyond our control.”

Over the horizon

It’s been a record year for residential and C&I installation capacity but the utility space in 2021 will likely surge as NSW and Queensland encourage development in renewable energy zones and other large PV plants progress towards construction. Next year will also see entrance onto the market of modules that use 210mm wafers and are capable of output around 600W. These are larger and heavier panels than typical and system designers will be solving new problems adapting them to projects.

Longi and some other key PV suppliers are sticking with 182mm wafers, however, and Hyun has a few opinions about how technology that uses 210mm wafers might incur unexpected costs.

He says 600W panels are “too big” and “too heavy”, at 35kg compared with 32kg. The format of the new modules will also make them more costly to ship, he says, where the portrait orientation used when loading regular panels allows more to be stacked in a 40-foot shipping container than the landscape orientation required for larger, 210mm-wafer panels. He suggests microcracks could be a problem on delivery. “That’s why we decided to go with the 182mm wafer with a power class of 550W.”

Lastly, he says inverters compatible with 600W panels are not yet available in this market.

These three factors – transportation, weight and system compatibility – will need to be taken into consideration when assessing 600W technology, which he otherwise acknowledges will have lower levelized cost of energy (LCOE) than regular panels.

The Beryl Solar Plant in NSW.

N-type, the next leap ahead

What’s next for solar efficiencies? Hyun says the next wave of advances in modules will rely on n-type cells, which are more efficient and not affected by light-induced degradation. Yes, the industry could pursue p-type technology and produce ever-larger modules, but the cost of transportation will soon become a limiting concern, along with system compatibility and module weight adding to construction costs.

Longi’s utility-scale clients are strongly favouring bifacial modules, he says, with 90% of recently-signed contracts calling for the higher-yielding technology. Thanks to gains in output associated with albedo light hitting the rear of panels, LCOE for bifacial is near parity with monofacial panels when used with tracking, he says. A pilot project in the US using Nextracker tracking has delivered an 8% gain over monofacial. “That’s why bifacial is popular.”

Longi has tested its bifacial modules with tracking in Australia but Hyun wasn’t prepared to share the result with EcoGeneration.

The company has capped its pipeline for business at 2GW a year and generally has a good idea of what it is contacted to deliver two years ahead. As Australia edges towards augmenting its high-voltage transmission connections to free the way for new clean energy projects – which are getting bigger every year – the indications from developers are that hybrid projects that incorporate storage and wind will be favoured over solar-only.

The main criteria for module selection are the balance of system cost and LCOE, he says, along with product warranty, product degradation and price. Product warranties can range between 12 and 15 years; performance warranties up to 25 or 30 years. Degradation is factored into the performance warranty, with 2% degradation standard after one year falling to 0.45% for bifacial and 0.55% for monofacial after 25 years. “That’s the market standard,” he says.