Dr Shi: China would not be dominating the module market if it did not invest in quality control

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pv magazine: As the founder of Suntech, you were instrumental is bringing Chinese-made PV cells and modules to the international marketplace. Part of this required convincing the international buyers that Chinese modules were of sufficiently high quality. How would you describe the current manufacturing landscape in China from a quality standpoint?

Shi Zhengrong: The Chinese manufacturing base has underpinned the global growth of solar. Without high quality, reliable and durable solar panels the market would not have grown as rapidly. Real world performance in Chinese made solar modules has also accelerated this growth. The supply chain in china is a highly specialised “solar cluster” [including an] extremely integrated supply chain collectively working together to grow manufacturing scale, quality and product efficiency.

How extensive are quality control measures in production in China today?

 Some of the measures commonly deployed in China are rigorous Industry standards, certification and regular factory audits; fully automated production processes including multiple in line quality control such as multiple EL imaging; and an integrated and certified supply chain. China would not be dominating the market if it did not reinvest in underlying fundamentals of best practice in manufacturing and quality control.

Your new venture looks to tackle a perennial challenge: How to equip rooftops with PV that may not be able to bear the weight of glass modules. How do you do this?

SunMan has identified a large pain point slowing down the uptake of solar on commercial and industrial roofs due to weight constraints. We estimate this market to be ~200GW globally. So, we’ve introduced a module which it is the first PV module of its type, made with a fibreglass reinforced composite material to pass IEC 61215 durability test. Our IEC test results have been benched market to conventional glass panels which has shown performance in line with market leading glass modules.

By removing the glass, our panels are 70% lighter. SunMan solar modules are based on crystalline silicon (c-Si) technology, leveraging its advances in performance, reliability and cost reduction.

But why not use CIGS, or another thin film technology, as has been done in the past with flexible or lightweight modules?

Using c-Si cells gives our modules same performance as glass modules – the same electrical characteristics with no [additional] weight. SunMan modules have the advantage of strength and endurance combined with lightness. To be a successful as an energy product we have ensured the balance between safety, reliability, performance and affordability.

The advantages of c-Si has been proven: c-Si cells advantages are proven long term durability and reliability, proven performance, affordability and the rapid development of the technology.

Crystalline silicon PV has been mass produced for over 40 years; the technology is so greatly understood that cell manufactures can predict degradation to produce linear power warranties; over 90% of the semiconductors used in the PV industry use c-Si cells, ensuring economic scale can be delivered driving down cost while improving efficiency; and continual and rapid product improvement ensures greater efficiencies and performance outpacing any developments in other semiconductors in the PV industry.

Going back to quality and reliability, how convinced are you that the polymer materials you use are sufficiently robust? How do you convince installers and developers of this?    

Composite polymer materials have been extensively used in the transport industry for many decades. The transport industry has invested billions of dollars to create robust, durable and reliable materials. The lighter your vehicle the less fuel required. SunMan has leveraged this rapid advancement to bring these polymer materials to the PV industry.

SunMan panels are the first panel of its type to pass IEC 61215 durability testing. IEC61215 durability testing is a wide-ranging set of 19 tests that examine the robustness of the module structure and its resistance to extremes of temperature, humidity, wind and snow loading and hail. These tests were developed from an extensive history of developing testing for PV module durability and they are used to build confidence in the ability of a module design to perform durably in the field.

On top of this, SunMan has also commissioned wide range of independent testing such as 3000 hours of damp heat test, accelerated 25 year UV testing and mechanical load test to address micro cracks.

Addressing real world performance is also important. SunMan has over 50 MW installed globally with the first system installed in 2015. We have been collecting in-field performance data and the results speak for themselves.

How does your polymer encapsulate compete with glass on a cost standpoint?

Let’s face it glass is a very cheap building product – look around us, it’s everywhere! At this point of time there is a small delta in product cost however with this scale this will change.

Solar cells have undergone raid development and advancement over the past 40 years improving their efficiency and driving down its cost. No one has looked to improve other aspects of module design. With volume we can accelerate the further reduction of module construction cost. Also, we need to remember is that out light weight panel challenges the “total turnkey” cost of delivering a solar system. By removing weight from the module we can reduce installation time by up to 40%, transportation and logistics cost by almost 60% and with our quick bonding installation method now we do not require mounting hardware.

Our new module can start to challenge the cost equation from other angles rather than relying on pure manufacturing cost alone to drive down cost.

What is the opportunity you see for lightweight and flexible modules in the Australian marketplace?

Honestly, I think it’s almost unlimited. For the first generation of our technology, just focusing on light weight applications, we have identified over 8 GW of commercial rooftops in Australia that cannot take the weight of glass solar modules if fully utilised. Globally we estimate this market to be over 200 GW. This gives SunMan a solid platform to build volume and scale and improve affordability.

SunMan’s module is only 3mm thick, in effect it is like a solar skin. Our ultimate goal and direction is to create products that will turn all building skins in to green electricity generators. This skin can be applied easily to any surface. SunMan will position itself as key product in helping the globally economy transition to 100% renewable with new innovative solar products and new applications to install solar.

Shi Zhengrong is a speaker at pv magazine’s Quality Roundtable event at All Energy. Register free here to attend.