Industry veteran warns of looming supply chain disruption


Global PV supply chains have experienced considerable disruption over the past 12-18 months, with a series of shocks delaying module shipments and increasing prices. In the latest development on the global marketplace, U.S. authorities have prevented some modules from being imported into the country as they are under the suspicion of having been produced, at least in some part, through coercive labor programs in the Xingjiang region of China.

Something very similar could occur in Australia, warns Maxeon’s O’Brien, who points to the progress of the Modern Slavery Bill (2018) moving through the legislative process of federal parliament as indicative of action being taken. He argues that the legislation will see solar supply chains come under much more scrutiny.

“What we will see is that there will be a lot more of a focus on it,” says O’Brien.

In the United States, the focus on potential slave labor in manufacturing has moved right to the very start of the solar supply chain – metallurgical grade polysilicon. The feedstock for PV ingots and cells, there are significant operations in the Xinjiang region, and it is difficult for PV cell and module makers to prove that the silicon in their modules is entirely free from forced labor.

“We go through a process, and have been for some time, of auditing our suppliers, our suppliers’ suppliers, and tracing all the way down to the origin of the raw material,” says O’Brien. “And we don’t have any breaches of our own policies.”

O’Brien reports that this is important for PV project investors and financiers, who do not want to put their money behind projects that use modules which could potentially be tainted by suspect labor practices.

“We are dealing with financiers in Australia on utility scale projects and their key priority is sustainability. You can imagine one of the big utilities coming back six or twelve months later and asking, ‘are our panels ok in terms of sustainability of forced labor?’ People are wanting to get in front of it now,” he elaborates.

Chris O’Brien,
Vice President at Maxeon Solar Technologies

Image: Chris O'Brien / LinkedIn

Earlier this year Maxeon published its first Sustainability Report – “it was good timing having that report come out,” says O’Brien.

Maxeon spun off from SunPower a little over a year ago. The company has its headquarters in Singapore and is making the APAC region a strategic priority. It supplies its modules through the former company’s manufacturing facilities in Southeast Asia, along with the JV production facility – for its shingled P-Series modules – is in China.

“One of the key messages is the growth of APAC,” says O’Brien. “Bloomberg are talking APAC doing 34 GW [of PV] this year and 77 GW in 2030. If 77 GW comes to pass over the next 10 years, it will be a massive growth of the importance of APAC in the global PV market. And that’s APAC without China I’m talking about.”

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