The capital intensity of photovoltaics manufacturing: barrier to scale and opportunity for innovation†
Using a bottom-up cost model, we assess the impact of initial factory capital expenditure (capex) on photovoltaic (PV) module minimum sustainable price (MSP) and industry-wide trends. We find capex to have two important impacts on PV manufacturing. First, capex strongly influences the per-unit MSP of a c-Si module: we calculate that the capex-related elements sum to 22% of MSP for an integrated wafer, cell, and module manufacturer. This fraction provides a significant opportunity to reduce MSP toward the U.S. DOE SunShot module price target through capex innovation. Second, a combination of high capex and low margins leads to a poor financial rate of return, which limits the growth rate of PV module manufacturing capacity. We quantify the capex of Czochralski-based crystalline silicon (c-Si) PV manufacturing, summing to 0.68 $/WaCap ($ per annual production capacity in watts, $year/W) from wafer to module and 1.01 $/WaCap from polysilicon to module. At a sustainable operating margin determined by the MSP methodology for our bottom-up scenario, we calculate the sustainable growth rate of PV manufacturing capacity to be ∼19% annually – below the historical trend of ∼50% annually. We conclude with a discussion of innovation opportunities to reduce the capex of PV manufacturing through both incremental and disruptive process innovation with c-Si, platform innovations, and financial approaches.