The solar photovoltaic industry experienced significant growing pains in 2018

China continued to dominate global manufacturing as well as the world market for solar photovoltaic; as a consequence, the country’s decision to constrain domestic demand led to turmoil in the industry as Chinese modules flooded the global market.

The resulting oversupply of cells and modules drove down prices and helped to open significant new markets, which counteracted the decline in China’s installations. Meanwhile, cell and module production capacity continued to increase.
Record-low auction prices, driven by lower panel prices and intense competition, brought further consolidation in the industry. Trade disputes also affected the industry, weakening project pipelines in India and affecting growth in the United States.

Overall, manufacturers had a challenging year with slim margins, and many manufacturers sold panels at below the cost of production. Nonetheless, competition and price pressures also led to investment in new, more-efficient production capacity and to continued advances in solar PV technology, particularly in China.
Module prices declined about 29% in 2018, to a global average of 22.4 cents per watt, with the greatest decrease occurring after China’s policy changes in May. By one estimate, this helped lower the cost of installing 1 MW of solar PV by an average of 12%.

As of late 2018, the LCOE from plants in operation was at levels close to or below the retail electricity price in some countries, and in some cases even below wholesale electricity prices.
Record PPAs and tenders continued during 2018, with some announcements of prices in the range of USD 20 per MWh.

Very low bid pricesi were seen in several countries, including Brazil, India and Egypt (under USD 30 per MWh).
Saudi Arabia announced the winning bid from its 2017 tender (USD 23.4 per MWh), and a PPA was signed in Dubai at a new low for the United Arab Emirates (USD 24 per MWh). 

Germany held an auction for large-scale projects that attracted bids below EUR 40 (USD 45.8) per MWh for the first time, and solar PV beat wind energy in joint auctions, although average bid prices inched up during the year.

The United States also saw long-term PPAs signed at record low prices for solar generation (the lowest being under USD 24 per MWh) and for solar PV-plus-storage (median bid price of USD 36 per MWh).
Some in the industry consider tariffs in the USD 20 per MWh range to be a “new normal” for winning tenders under ideal conditions (for example, high solar irradiation, stable policy environment), although the average solar PV LCOE remains somewhat higher.
There is a concern that tenders have been favouring the most cost-competitive options and not necessarily the most advanced or innovative technologies and designs. Even so, tenders have driven a shift to market-oriented conditions in many countries and to the introduction of new business models.
Trade policies also influenced the industry in 2018, with two of the top three country markets (India and the United States) placing new tariffs on China, the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter of solar products.

Mid-year, the government of India placed a safeguard duty of 25% on solar products imported from China and Malaysia. Indian developers responded by stalling project construction or sourcing imports from other countries in the region, particularly Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. 

Along with a general slowdown in Indian demand during 2018, the duty contributed to a reported 37% reduction in solar cell and module imports relative to 2017.168 By some accounts, however, it also led to additions to domestic manufacturing capacity.
The United States imposed tariffs on nearly all major sources of solar PV imports in early 2018. The prospect of tariffs led to domestic stockpiling in 2017 and drove up panel prices in
the country, making domestic production more profitable and spurring some new manufacturing plant construction.

In 2018, however, the import tariffs reduced demand for US solar installations, a trend that was partially offset by a flood of Chinese panels entering the global market. Three additional sets of US tariffs (on Chinese inverters and non-lithium batteries, on steel and on aluminium) adopted during 2018 also affected the US solar industry.
Meanwhile, in September the EU ended anti-dumping and antisubsidy measures that had been in force since 2013 on cells and modules imported from China. The European Commission determined that it was in the EU’s best interest to allow the measures to lapse, given the region’s goal of increasing the supply of renewable energy.

In turn, China ended anti-dumping and countervailing duties on solar-grade polysilicon from the EU.
China dominated global production in 2018 for the 10th year running. Seven of the top 10 manufacturers, and all of the top three, were Chinese-based companies: JinkoSolar maintained the lead, followed by JA Solar, Trina Solar and LONGi Solar (all China); Canadian Solar (China/Canada), Hanwha Q-CELLS (Republic of Korea), Risen Energy, GCL-SI and Talesun (all China) and First Solar (United States) rounded out the top 10. 

Most of these companies also were among the top 10 for cell production. First Solar is the only top 10 company that manufactures thin films and that produces all of its modules. 

The top 10 module suppliers shipped nearly 60% of the total in 2018. Despite subsidy reductions and falling demand in China, several Chinese companies made significant investments during 2018 to increase their manufacturing capacity and announced plans for further expansion, with the aim of achieving lower production costs through advanced technologies.182 China’s cell production volumes were estimated to be up more than 21% over 2017, to 87.2 GW, while module production rose 14.3%, to 85.7 GW.
Beyond China, new manufacturing capacity (mostly for modules, and largely Chinese-owned) was completed or under construction in several countries, including India, Morocco, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and the United States (where expansion has followed tax reform and trade tariffs).
Non-Chinese manufacturers have found it increasingly difficult to compete due to challenges they face in mobilising funding as well as to the growing focus in China on high-tech manufacturing. As a result, many non-Chinese manufacturers have turned to differentiation through products for niche markets, specific technology add-ons and other developments that provide added value.
While some companies in China have made significant investments in manufacturing capacity and in research and development in recent years, elsewhere around the world in 2018 most of the capital flowing into solar PV went to downstream companies and projects.

The year broke records for solar project acquisitions, with large projects attracting even conservative investors such as insurance companies and pension funds, and some 29 GW worth of solar projects traded hands.

Leading utilities have acquired significant portfolios of solar PV projects; in China, India and the United States, power companies have substantial domestic capacity, whereas European multinationals are developing global portfolios.
Companies upstream and downstream were affected by cutthroat pricing that was not necessarily reflective of cost, as well as by shrinking or shifting markets in some countries.

The year saw several bankruptcies, perhaps most notably in China, following the policy changes mid-year, and in Japan.

Since 2013, Japan has seen a steady rise in bankruptcies due to reductions in FIT payments and falling profits for solar companies: an estimated 95 Japanese solar companies went bankrupt in 2018.

In India, very low energy prices from tenders made it difficult for developers to get financing and to find equipment, particularly as the industry remained highly dependent on imports. Even operations and maintenance (O&M) companies felt the bite of price pressure, with a notable increase in consolidation in India.
In response to such pressures, O&M companies around the world continued investing in labour-saving innovations and expanding into new service areas, including energy storage.
The drive to increase efficiencies and reduce the LCOE has pushed manufacturers to develop advanced technologies, and new record cell and module efficiencies were achieved
throughout the year.

Silicon-based solar cells, which account for about 90% of the market and are ahead of the competition for stability and efficiency (20-22% for typical solar cells in the marketplace), are close to reaching their maximum theoretical efficiency. Researchers are working to overcome these limits by stacking cells of different types and developing new cell technologies.
Passivated Emitter Rear Cell (PERC) technology has become the new standard for the monocrystalline silicon solar cell variety because it increases efficiencies with modest investment.
PERC cell production capacity increased from a few pilot lines in 2013 to more than 35 GW in 2017, and was expected to exceed 60 GW by the end of 2018.

The large and rapid ramp-up has been driven in part by policy, with China leading the way.

Although mono PERC is the focus of most capacity expansions, several manufacturers are converting factories to production of heterojunction cell technology (HJT), which offers higher efficiencies and can be manufactured at relatively low temperatures and with fewer production steps than other highefficiency cell technologies.
Researchers also advanced perovskiteiv technology during the year, working to increase efficiency and reduce costs, improve long-term stability and replace lead content with more environmentally friendly materials. UK-based Oxford PV announced a record 28% power conversion efficiency for a perovskite-silicon tandem solar cell in late 2018, exceeding the efficiency record for a single junction silicon solar cell (26.7%). The company aims to make its technology commercially available by late 2019 or early 2020.

Module manufacturers have continued to develop advanced technologies, such as multi-busbars and half-cut cells, which were first used in China under the country’s Top Runner programme but increasingly are seen elsewhere as well.

By one estimate, at year’s end there were at least 15 technology options for modules, and the field was only expanding.

Bifacial modules, which can capture light on both sides, also offer significant potential gains in output that are expected to more than make up for their additional cost.

Large projects with bifacial modules already were being deployed in 2018, although quality-related uncertainties remained. First Solar took a giant step forward with its transition to the Series 6 thin film module, and in 2018 the company announced plans to triple its US manufacturing capacity.
Improvements in geographic information systems are helping developers identify locations with high solar resource potential for large-scale projects, and other advances are helping to reduce time requirements for project construction and commissioning.
More and more large projects are using single-axis trackers, which flatten the production curve and increase yield.

In 2018, global tracker shipments jumped an estimated 40%.
Once projects are in operation, improved inverteriv reliability, remote technologies and advanced cleaning options are helping to reduce labour-related costs and outage times. Digitalisation is improving plant monitoring processes, and new technologies such as aerial drones, combined with artificial intelligence, are helping with preventative maintenance, speeding up procedures, increasing plant efficiency and reducing associated costs.
Despite tremendous steps forward in solar PV technologies, the need to drive down manufacturing and project development costs has raised concerns that manufacturers and developers could be pushed to cut corners, and that quality could be compromised.
Already, poor quality – from product manufacturing and shipping, to project design and construction, to commissioning and O&M stages – is an issue of concern in a number of countries.

In India, as a result of price pressure, inexperience, extreme climatic conditions and weak government requirements, many firms have cut corners on quality in order to operate on thin margins, so that they can bid low and win projects. Smaller rooftop systems in India have experienced quality challenges as well.

Other countries, from Australia to Pakistan, also have faced component quality issues due to the desire for cheap imported modules and to a lack of testing and standards.
In turn, such developments have prompted developers of large-scale projects to invest increasingly in rigorous quality assurance programmes to secure return on their investment in the medium and long term.

Governments and non-profit organisations, as in Australia, for example, have stepped up efforts to test and certify panels and other components in order to protect consumers.

As new technologies emerge, not only do they make decisions more complex for developers (for example, which module type to use, trackers or not), but there also is a need for new benchmarking tests.

Quality assurance companies, such as DNV GL of Norway, are working with universities and research institutions to advance and extend reliability and performance tests for modules.

In 2018, DNV GL issued the world’s first project certificate for a solar PV plant to a 100 MW facility in Telangana, India. At the time, the company’s service specification was believed to be the world’s only global guideline for certifying solar PV projects.
To help reduce uncertainty related to solar projects, large insurance companies have begun guaranteeing output from solar farms. A new product sold by Swiss Re AG, called a Solar Revenue Put, reportedly can guarantee as much as 95% of a solar plant’s expected output.
Other developments in 2018 included the opening in France of what was believed to be the first non-pilot facility in Europe –and possibly the world – dedicated to recycling solar panels.
In early 2019, Sembcorp and Singapore Polytechnic signed a collaborative agreement to commercialise Singapore’s first solar panel recycling process.
The linkages between solar PV, storage and electric vehicles (EVs) continued to expand during the year. Solar cell and module manufacturer Hanwha Q Cells announced plans to enter the solar rooftop market with solar-plus-storage for residential customers.

In early 2019, the Dutch oil giant Shell purchased Sonnen, the leading manufacturer of home batteries in Germany, with an eye towards becoming the utility of the future – focused
on clean energy, EVs and distributed electricity generation with storage.

China’s BYD, which began by manufacturing batteries and later expanded into EVs, has begun manufacturing solar panels as well. In 2018, BYD and Kostal (Germany) signed a deal to provide storage solutions for residential and commercial solar PV systems.

In Germany, companies like Enerix, Sonnen and Solarwatt, which were once struggling due to a shrinking domestic solar PV market, are thriving thanks to the growing demand for energy storage systems.