Origin Energy says it is taking a cautious approach to how it rolls out its unique Sliver technology, saying it wants to be sure that it can be cost competitive with the sheer scale of Chinese manufacturers.
Origin Energy financed and then bought the Sliver technology, which was developed at the Australian National University and proposes a ultra-thin panel with a significant reduction in the amount of silicon needed, and put it into a US joint venture called Transform Solar in early 2010, in partnership with semiconductor group Micron Technologies.
The company had previously talked about rolling out the technology in Australia by the end of 2011, but the sharp slump in solar PV prices from China has caused the company to review its strategy, even though Origin Energy CEO Grant King says it remains confident that it can compete.
“There is no question that the cost of solar PV is coming down,” Origin Energy CEO Grant King told RenewEconomy in an interview. This was being driven by Chinese tier one suppliers, who are bringing scale of production and a lower cost of capital, but it was challenging for aspiring manufacturers such as Sliver.
“We think that solar PV may be economic without subsidy by 2015, in some markets today but potentially in Australia by 2015/16. So if you are a manufacturer rather than a buyer –and we have two hats there, we buy solar PV to put on rooftops and we are considering being a manufacture with new technology – but to make that decision you have got to sure you can be well below where Chinese tier one supplier can get to, three or four or five years out. That is the investment horizon and that is a big test.”
He said it was essential that Sliver had the capability to operate at scale, to match the one gigawatt manufacturing plants that are now being installed in China. “There is no point being a 50MW or 100MW plant, you will be knocked out of the game straightaway on scale. So you have really got to be able to see the way forward to invest in quite a large plant.
“Our work with Micron by the way encourages us that we can be competitive with Chinese tier one suppliers, but it is a big decision so we are being very careful about that decision and that is what the joint venture is focusing on in the next six months.”
Transform Solar recently announced that it was collaborating with another party to develop “solar roof” tiles in Japan.It boasts the technology can produce cells that are distinctively different, and are smaller, thinner, and more flexible than conventional cells. It recently completed its first 20MW facility, but after suggesting last year that it would scale its solar module production capacity to over 300 MW per year. That decision now appears to be on hold, with Origin saying it is looking at “alternative pathways” to scale, and no word yet on its deployment in Australia.