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


“At the front of the factory, we start with normal glass, and at the back comes the finished module,” says Sarah Neubert.

Wearing blue rubber gloves to protect herself from dust, she runs her fingers over the solar glass and checks the film at the first step of the fully automated production line.

Neubert is responsible for the quality control of the new Meyer Burger solar module factory in Freiberg near Dresden. Behind it are mobile stands and glittering silver-and-white machines in a space the size of two football fields.

Windows are transported on conveyor belts, high speed machine arms assemble solar cells, films, frames and junction boxes, which are then glued together at high temperature.

Production in 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 by a flash test: Is the voltage correct? Otherwise, Neubert, his shift supervisor and the IT staff look for the error as a team.

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

Cutting-edge technology and high efficiency

Extremely powerful and efficient solar modules have been manufactured in Freiberg since June using heterojunction SmartWire technology. These modules produce about 20% more electricity per square meter than standard modules.

“This is a technological change. We can compare it to the transition from 4G to 5G in mobile communications,” says Gunter Erfurt, CEO of Meyer Burger.

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, at a factory near Leipzig, 150 kilometers (93 miles) from Freiberg.

Modules and new professions for the region

Production at Freiberg started with a capacity of 0.4 gigawatt (GW) of solar modules per year, and is expected to increase tenfold over the next few years.

A close up of the production line solar module factory

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

From 2026, the company plans to sell modules with a total capacity of 5 GW per year. That’s about as many solar modules installed in Germany last year. The company plans to sell in the German, European and American markets.

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

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

Neubert is delighted to help build the new production facility in his hometown of Freiberg.

“The solar industry has always interested me, which is why at the time I did my apprenticeship here at Solarworld,” she says.

But German cell and module maker Solarworld lost the price war against Chinese rivals and went bankrupt in 2018, leaving the Freiberg plant building empty until the new production was installed.

Good timing for new solar plants

The factories in East Germany mark the entry of the Swiss company Meyer Burger into the production of solar cells and modules.

A photo of Sarah Neubert

Sarah Neubert supervises the quality control in this production hall

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

Their sites in East Germany already had qualified staff and a good infrastructure. And it was a particularly good time to invest in new factories, says Erfurt.

“Photovoltaics has become the cheapest way to generate electricity. It wasn’t the case five years ago. And certainly not 10 years ago. huge leaps so that there are no more barriers, “he said. said.

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

CEO Gunter Erfurt (m) opens the plant in Bitterfeld-Wolfen with Prime Minister of the State of Saxony-Anhalt Haseloff (l) and Minister of Economics Armin Willingmann

Last year, photovoltaic systems with a capacity of 139 GW were newly installed around the world, up from 115 GW in 2019. By 2021, according to Bloomberg Energy Finance estimates, that number will reach 209 GW. Last year, 99% of all solar modules in the world were produced in Asia, the vast majority in China.

“We believe this should not and should not be the case,” Erfurt said.

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

Local production cuts costs

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

“It is completely absurd to ship solar modules halfway around the world. Modules have to be manufactured in regional markets. This is how energy sovereignty can be established at low cost with advanced technology.” , Erfurt said.

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

Growing demand around the world

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

One of the reasons for the surge 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 unbeatable price: “We can now generate solar electricity in southern Europe for 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour, and soon for only 1 cent.

This means that all other types of power generation quickly become irrelevant, ”Weber explains.

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

Manufacturers in Europe and many other countries have not received comparable support from their governments. However, companies other than 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, a manufacturer is considering a new 2 GW plant in Gujarat. And in Wroclaw, in western Poland, a solar plant for the production of organic solar cells was opened in June.

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

This article was adapted from German.


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