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Labour cost as impetus in PV prod'n no longer holds water

Posted: 09 Sep 2013 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:solar panels? PV manufacturing? labour cost?

According to the latest study from MIT and the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), in spite of the belief that China is the world's dominant manufacturer of solar panels because of its low labour costs and strong government support, there appears to be other factors are actually more significant. The researchers added that these factors, when successfully addressed, could allow the United States to become once again cost-competitive in photovoltaic (PV) manufacturing.

As of 2011, manufacturers in China accounted for 63 per cent of all solar-panel production worldwide. But a detailed analysis of all costs associated with PV production shows that the main contributors to that country's lower PV prices are economies of scale and well-developed supply chainsnot cheap labour.

"We developed a bottom-up model," said Tonio Buonassisi, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and a co-author of the report, published in the journal Energy and Environmental Science. The researchers estimated costs for virtually all the materials, labour, equipment and overhead involved in the PV manufacturing process.

"We added up the costs of each individual step," he stated, providing an analysis that's "very rigorous, it's down in the weeds. It doesn't rely solely on self-reported figures from manufacturers' quarterly reports. We really took great care to make sure our numbers were representative of actual factory costs."

While China does indeed have a small advantage in labour costs, the study found, that has relatively little impact on prices because solar-panel manufacturing is highly automated. The lower cost of labour in China provides an advantage of seven cents per watt, relative to a factory in the U.S., but that amount is countered by other country-specific factors, such as higher inflation.

The bottom line, Buonassisi noted, is that today's regional price differences in making photovoltaic modules are "not inherent [and] not driven by country-specific advantages." As a result, technological innovations could rapidly level the playing field.

A crucial parameter is something the researchers call the minimum sustainable price, or MSP, which represents a cost of manufacture plus a sustainable profit margin to companies. To arrive at that, Buonassisi said, the team included estimates not only of the costs of producing silicon wafers, making those into PV cells, and mounting the cells in panels, but also estimates of such indirect costs as research and discount rates for the manufacturers.

These nontechnical costs associated with running a business "aren't always included in other analyses," Buonassisi added. Today, the average MSP is higher than the market price of solar panels, which is not sustainable long term. That's why improved technology is essential, he says.

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