Interview with Florian Haacke, Partner and head of the Solar Materials practice group at Apricum
PV cell packaging, the outer protective layer of the PV module, plays a critical role in the module’s safety, efficiency and durability. On one hand, packaging acts as an electrical insulator, preventing a conduction path from the cells’ connections to the frame. On the other, it seals the active components in the module against the weather and environment (UV, extreme temperatures, wind, hail, abrasive storms or moisture) over the 25-year lifetime of the module.
Although PV cell packaging represents a small fraction of the module’s cost, it is one of the most important parts of the module. Selecting the right packaging material is a strategic decision that will determine the module’s performance and ensure a long life.
We spoke with Florian Haacke about the development of the PV cell packaging market, concepts, materials and the implications for module manufacturers and solar material providers.
PV cell packaging used to be dominated by EVA film and flexible Tedlar®-based backsheet in the past. How has the market for PV cell encapsulation changed and what are the consequences for PV module makers and the suppliers of those materials?
Like most segments of the PV industry, PV packaging is highly dynamic. Until 2007, the market was small and easy to grasp – EVA encapsulation film and Tedlar-based backsheets were mostly taken from other applications and made available to the infant PV industry. With the solar industry taking off at a very fast pace we saw attractive margins but also the first manufacturers facing delivery constraints. This situation attracted new suppliers seeking to address the gap in supply and triggered new product developments geared towards the specific PV industry needs.
Today, PV module manufactures have a much wider choice of solar materials. Material suppliers, mostly chemical companies or component manufactures, have the opportunity to capture a share of a fast growing market – or defend former market shares and especially margins.
A wider choice of PV packaging materials is a good thing, but also a potential challenge to PV module manufacturers. How do PV module manufacturers decide what materials to use?
In the last five years, the number of available materials and material suppliers in PV packaging has multiplied by almost ten – and the number continues to grow. Most of the materials are new to the industry and there is limited experience regarding durability, making it difficult for module manufacturers to select the best material. There is not a “one and only” material solution. For example, a module installed in the Saudi Arabian desert will use very different packaging materials than a module installed on a Northern-German residential roof. In workshops around the globe, we help PV module manufacturers find the right material solutions for future module designs that fit their specific market segments. So for each of these market segments, module efficiency, durability and cost can be optimized.
Regarding these new cell packaging concepts and materials, what are the innovation trends?
The industry looks for simple and cost-effective solutions; less parts, less weight, less processing cost and still improved performance and durability. Before kicking off the development of a new film or component, the future technical requirements need to be clearly established. This task is not easy in the fast-moving PV market. Innovation starts at base polymer design, choice of additives or fillers, layer or coating design. Sometimes underestimated, conversion and extrusion also play a major role [GI1]. Recently, we are seeing coextruded PV packaging films, manufactured in one machine run through and yet offering the possibility of custom-designed, multi-layer stacks. We also see innovative coatings and coating applications. These are trends with good potential.
Who are the most important players in the market for PV packaging materials and how do they differ?
We see two major trends:
First, large international chemical players are strengthening their positions in PV packaging. Solar has become an attractive market with critical size, offering a chance – at least so far – to counter the automotive and construction market cycles. Some chemical companies decide to not simply deliver the polymer base materials but integrate downward into converted film. For instance, Dupont has been doing this for a long time, but today Mitsubishi, Dow Chemicals and Eastman Chemicals also offer final packaging solutions. As a consequence, non-integrated, “just-converters” are likely to face harder times.
The second trend is that converters are moving closer to their end-customers, the PV module manufacturers. Until a few years ago, Chinese PV module manufacturers purchased abroad close to 100% of their PV packaging films. Today, we see fast moving Chinese converters like Hangzhou First PV Material with a global market share for encapsulation film of around 40% and companies like Cybrid on a similar track for flexible backsheets.
However, I must add that large-scale solar thermal systems will only take off when companies and planners understand that we need a paradigm shift: Production and energy availability must always go hand in hand. Industries should carry out the most energy-intensive operations in the time of the day when (solar) energy is available. Only when we start doing that, will we start moving towards true efficiency.
What will be the key challenges for solar material suppliers in the next five years?
As I said before, the number of solar material suppliers has increased by a factor of ten in five years. Not all of today’s players will make it through the next five years. We expect consolidations among solar material suppliers similar to the way it is happening among PV module manufacturers.
Key success factors for solar material suppliers will be active participation in future PV module design processes, partnering strategies, innovative and secured raw material sources, conversion know-how, the mindset to make it simple, critical size and global reach.