In turn, the Chinese companies have used their manufacturing success to try to seed a next generation of technology. This year Suntech put into service production equipment for new high-efficiency solar cells. At full capacity, the equipment will be capable of producing about 2.5 million panels’ worth of cells each year—enough to generate 500 megawatts of electricity. While commissioning the equipment, the company’s researchers took the opportunity to learn more about the technology and about the subtle interplay between such factors as the level of doping in the silicon wafers and the technology used to apply thin films of material to their surfaces.
“It’s very interesting doing experiments on a half-gigawatt facility,” Wenham says. “Once you have something in manufacturing, it creates a good environment where you have very good control of things, and you’re doing things in large numbers so that statistically, it’s very powerful. You can see the impact of changes which you wouldn’t be able to see if you’re doing things in the lab as one-offs.” As a result of these experiments, Suntech was able to make an already efficient design substantially more efficient.
Not all the manufacturing changes Chinese companies have made have improved the product—in some cases, cost reductions have produced products that don’t last as long or perform as well as solar cells made elsewhere, says Travis Bradford, a solar industry analyst. But the Chinese companies also have other, nontechnical advantages that have allowed them to succeed. The government assures cheap financing for expanding production and has reduced red tape for permitting. Its policies are also more stable than those of many Western governments, which helps the companies plan ahead. And while labor may account for a small fraction of the cost of producing solar cells, cheap labor does significantly reduce the cost of building new plants.
Some of China’s advantages, such as the price of currency, could be going away soon, Bradford says: “If the Western firms can survive until then, Chinese firms will find it uncomfortably competitive—a situation they are not familiar with.” But it’s not a situation they haven’t anticipated. Even as Suntech increases production of its new high-efficiency solar cells, it is already working on production processes that could help increase efficiency by another 10 percent. Wenham is keeping most of the details secret—the one part he can talk about is something he likens to a “squirt gun” for removing impurities from the silicon wafer.
“It’s simple yet effective,” he says. That simplicity keeps down production costs, while the higher efficiency will allow cells to generate more power, lowering their cost per watt. If the company is successful, advances in manufacturing will once again make solar power cheaper.