Chinese Solar Companies Thrive on Manufacturing Innovations

Here in south Georgia we don’t even need to innovate manufacturing, we merely need to implement. Yet Georgia’s solar manufacturers Suniva and MAGE SOLAR are innovating. And we can innovate in deployment.

Kevin Bullis wrote in MIT Technology Review today, Chinese Solar Companies Thrive on Manufacturing Innovations:

Suntech Power’s CTO argues that the secret to China’s success is not cheap labor but advanced equipment for making solar cells.

Five years ago only one of the 10 largest solar cell producers was based in China. But by last year, four of the top five were based there, and each is growing fast: all four doubled their production last year. It’s widely believed that this success is due to low labor costs, but Stuart Wenham, CTO of the largest solar cell maker in China, Suntech Power, argues that the real causes are advances in manufacturing technology that have improved solar cells’ performance and cut costs.

How about this part:
Wenham says the top Chinese companies have been particularly good at identifying promising technologies—often concepts and prototypes that have been languishing in labs for decades—and finding ways to produce them at a large scale.
And all we have to do is to deploy solar at large scale.

Wenham says that knowledge and experience in manufacturing were crucial to developing such advances. At UNSW, he explains, the researchers would use this “horribly sophisticated process,” including photolithography, vacuum deposition of “quite exotic metals,” and “all sorts of chemical processes,” to deposit the narrow metal contacts required for achieving high efficiencies. Suntech researchers, who were closely familiar with the needs of manufacturing, “came up with a simple, low-cost way to replace all of that while achieving the same results,” he says.
How about we come up with some south Georgia low-tech ways of deploying this stuff? For example, I heard from its CEO that Georgia Solar Power now can clip solar panels directly to the seams in corrugated steel roofing, with no need to puncture the roof. Let’s find easy ways to put them on parking lots, road medians, sidewalks, barns, buildings, and back yards!

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.
Who’s going to step up in south Georgia and finance solar?