Top Five Takeaways from The smarter E Europe 2024

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June 24, 2024
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8 min read
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What a week it was! Decompressing after The smarter E Europe, the continent's biggest solar, battery storage and smart energy conference, is a challenge in its own right. The surging crowds, excess of events, and thousands of exhibiting companies make for a genuinely overwhelming four day swing. 

But despite the difficulty of surveying it all, the event remains the best opportunity to take the temperature of cleantech expansion across Europe and beyond. And some clear trends emerged.

Interviewing market analysts Jenny Chase and Karen Tang on the status of solar cell and module prices.

1. Relentless Cell, Module Price Pressure

It can’t be avoided that prices along the solar module supply chain are at basement levels. At the low end, prices below $0.10/Wp are now a reality – according to online solar product trading platform pvXchange. And $0.07-0.08/Wp are not uncommon. 

While better prices can be achieved with high efficiency products, think back-contact or heterojunction, pvXchange tracks that prices even for these “premium” offerings come in at $0.19/Wp – having declined almost 10% in the last month. 

This leaves module makers in the difficult situation of losing money while trying to maintain market share. While production oversupply is now entrenched, PV manufacturers appear to be continuing to operate their lines and are hoping that cash reserves will see them through. 

I conducted four video interviews at the pv magazine booth around this theme. Executives from Longi and Trina were happy to take on the topic in discussion with me, along with analyst Jenny Chase from BloombergNEF, and Karen Tang from energy-sector price benchmark provider OPIS. All spoke frankly about the severity of the situation and observed that the severe price declines will lead to some producers exiting the market. 

As two of the largest module suppliers globally, both Longi and Trina spoke of opportunities on the downside. 

Longi Vice President Dennis She said uncompetitive technologies are rapidly exiting the market, and that companies with the financial resources to continue investing in R&D can gain an advantage. Longi was promoting its back-contact (BC) technology in Munich, with She noting that the “BC-era is arriving.”

Trina Solar’s Executive President Helena Li said that the oversupply situation was allowing module makers to optimize their production process, in partnership with their equipment providers. During periods in which manufacturers and technology providers struggle to keep up with demand, collaborative development on production processes were difficult. Today, many iterative improvements are being made.

Li also said that manufacturers should be collaborating with their customers to develop new products and PV systems to stimulate demand.

Getting the exclusive world-record setting announcement from Oxford PV CTO, Chris Case.

2. Perovskites Step Out

While new cell and module formats are always on display at Munich, step-change technologies only occasionally make their way onto the trade show floor. 2024 was different in one significant way. 

Modules employing perovskite PV technology were featured at a handful of booths. And the manufacturers deploying the technology report that it is market ready. Chris Case, the long-serving CTO at Oxford PV, proudly showcased the company’s 72-cell perovskite-heterojunction tandem module at their booth – and presented testing results from a world-record setting residential panel. 

With a module efficiency of almost 27%, the 60-cell module result demonstrates that perovskite-tandem technology could well be on the brink of moving out of the laboratory and into mass production. The Oxford PV residential module was verified by Fraunhofer’s CallLab team. 

“It represents the beginning of our anticipated products along our roadmap,” said Case. “We’ve been achieving a 1.5% efficiency gain each year, and expect to do that for another decade.”

Oxford PV is pursuing a strategy of providing cells to third-party module makers, as it doesn’t operate a large-scale panel facility. One such partner is German photovoltaic-thermal (PVT) module maker Sunmaxxx – with the company proudly releasing the first perovskite-PVT module at Intersolar. 

Chinese manufacturer GCL, which was relatively early in its pursuit of perovskite technology, had both pure-perovskite and perovskite-tandem technology on display. pv magazine USA’s John Weaver got a look at both modules and said that the company was confident that durability concerns are being addressed. Weaver reported that the pure perovskite module has an efficiency of just over 19%, while the tandem module's efficiency is just over 26%.

The Fluence Gridstack Pro 5000.

3. Time for Powerful, Big Batteries

Energy storage has long played an important role at The smarter E, and the ess Europe halls were celebrating their 10th birthday this year. Residential batteries were particularly prominent, with strong attachment rates in the German marketplace a promising development. 

In 2023, BloombergNEF had reported residential battery attachment rates of 80% in Germany – meaning that only 20% of new home rooftop solar systems were being installed without a battery. During Intersolar, Climate Copy heard the remarkable statistic that German installer Enpal is seeing attachment rates in its home market of more than 95%.

But it was the bigger batteries that stood out in terms of product innovation. Long-established German battery maker sonnen was selected as one of the Energy Storage category award winners in 2024, for its sonnenPro FlexStack product. The battery system is designed for the C&I market segment and can be installed outside. The batteries can be connected in series, or “stacked”, to deliver flexibility to C&I installers.

With grid connection constraints and increasingly volatile power prices becoming more common in Europe, there was consensus that an acceleration of large-scale battery storage is becoming a necessity. Conference attendees heard how enabling policies and regulatory reforms are lagging market developments in terms of large-scale energy storage in many EU member states and at the European Union level. 

Large scale BESS providers are readying for the expected uptick in demand. Chinese giants BYD and CATL have both released containerized battery products that deliver more than 5 MWh of capacity, in a standard sea container format. They have been joined by battery integrator Fluence – with its Gridstack Pro 5000. And some diversified solar providers are across the trend. 

Trina had its new 5 MWh Elementa 2 BESS on display at its booth during Intersolar. The system utilizes in-house produced 314 Ah lithium-ion phosphate (LFP) cells. While liquid cooling is one technical development that has been facilitating the recent increase in battery system energy density, Trina’s Michael Katz said that advancements in battery cell energy density is what is truly driving the powerful new generation of products.

The high tech mySigen App from Sigenergy, integrated with GPT-4.

4. AI Arrives

New applications of AI technology are coming to PV. And while there is more buzz than real-world applications of the technology at present, there was an impression in Munich that AI developers are readying to shake up some aspects of the solar industry. 

PV veteran Dirk Morbitzer was providing a guided introductory tour of solar to Danish startup Shiney.ai. The young company is introducing its specialized lead-generator to PV, where it says it can deliver qualified leads to installers, cutting their acquisition costs. 

Chinese power electronics and battery developer Sigenergy is drawing on its AI heritage to help simplify the installation and commissioning experience. Sigenergy founder Tony Xu spent two-and-a-half years as president of Huawei’s Ascend AI Computing team, and he’s applying that experience to his fast-growing smart energy venture.

The Sigenergy AI chatbot is particularly adept at assisting installers to install and commission their products. Sigenergy’s Head of Global Sales Roy Zhang says that it’s learning fast. “We have been training and training, and now it is getting really smart. It can do all of the questions.”

The flood gates opening to let in the crowds on the first day of the trade show and exhibition.

5. Bustling Barely Describes the Vibe

There was no avoiding the crowds at Intersolar. From the U-bahn to the entrance, along thoroughfares, and across almost all halls, there were attendees in abundance. While official figures have not yet been announced, there were very likely more than 100,000 people at the show. 

The conference, which has often provided a relaxed “warm up” to the main event in years past, was very well frequented – and the quality of sessions high. Notably, many exhibitors and attendees stuck around for all three days of the trade show, another improvement on former events. 

Event organizers Solar Promotion reported that more than 3,000 booths were sold this year – with an overflow exhibition hall set up in one of the ICC conference rooms.

There is no doubt that 2024 is seeing somewhat of a cooling of the European marketplace, down from the highs prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting energy crisis. It should be noted, however, that cooling doesn’t mean a decline in market size, rather slowing growth. And the breadth of the electrification of Europe’s economy and the ongoing energy transition is presenting opportunities for new products and in new marketplaces.

SolarPower Europe launched its “Global Market Outlook for Solar Power 2024-2028” in Munich and it’s significant that four of the top-10 markets for solar in 2023 were in Europe. Germany (15 GW), Spain (8.9 GW), Italy (5.2 GW), and the Netherlands (4.9 GW) were the leading European marketplaces, and their combined 34 GW of installations exceeded that achieved by the United States (32.4 GW), according to SolarPower Europe.

Climate Copy entering The smarter E on the first day (fresh-faced and energized); leaving with our partner agency Positive Good on the last day (with sorer feet, but no less energized!).

Final Thoughts

Looking forward, SolarPower Europe expects 10% annual solar market growth in 2024. After installing slightly more than 70 GW of PV in 2023, the industry body expects that to increase to 77 GW this year. The short boom on the back of the recent energy crisis may have passed, but a pathway to steady expansion is well established. The EU’s Green Deal and REPowerEU initiatives will continue to provide support.

The Smarter E has both effectively diversified right across the industries involved in Europe’s electrification and decarbonization – while remaining at the heart of the region’s solar industry.

We’ll see you there in 2025!

 

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