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Why are we launching PV IndiaTech?

By Finlay Colville, Head of Research, PV-Tech & Solar Media Ltd.

During the past few years, we have had numerous requests from a wide range of PV industry stakeholders (due mainly to the success of the PV CellTech and PV ModuleTech series of conferences) to launch an India-specific PV event in Delhi. The requests have come from Indian companies, overseas investors, government bodies, trade associations, and both upstream/downstream industry activists seeking to understand and drive future developments.

As a result of these requests, and given the key stage Indian PV manufacturing is going through today, we have decided to launch an annual event in Delhi, dedicated specifically to India PV manufacturing. PV IndiaTech 2019 will have its premiere on 24-25 April 2019.

Below we outline the need for such an event, and what the key objectives will be from the conference. More broadly, I outline here also just why any company with global PV aspirations (across the entire PV value-chain) either has, or needs to have, a carefully considered India-PV-strategy plan.

Once you have absorbed all the information, it would be great to get your thoughts on PV IndiaTech 2019, and how we should configure the event with the correct mix of global stakeholders needed to move the industry’s manufacturing forward over the next 10-20 years.

Unique focus on manufacturing that bypasses short-term opportunism

Every country that embarks on a solar or renewables plan does so with lofty ambitions of creating an indigenous manufacturing landscape that results in high-quality sustainable job creation. Conversely, no government wishes to bankroll a deployment gold-rush that ends up being cornered by Chinese imports. Chapters of thesis could be filled simply by solar activities in this regard over the past few years.

For the countries that have sought to impose domestic manufacturing restrictions, whether to bail out domestic companies such as in South Korea and Taiwan or show evidence of token manufacturing efforts by way of module assembly plants, there has been all too often an air of short-termism.

Linking a viable domestic manufacturing sector with a risk-free long-term pipeline needs a government commitment that extends beyond 10 years, and in this respect, we can start to see just why PV manufacturing ambitions within India today are different from anywhere else globally.

But there is much more. India has an embedded goal of being seen on the global stage as a high-quality technology leader, and not simply another Asian country (post Japan, Korea, Taiwan) that has labour costs or a sophisticated OEM-culture as its primary drivers (Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam). This largely captures the Make-in-India mantra, but for solar there is also the deployment (energy demand) driver that moves things to another level.

Fundamentally, India is the only country today that has a multi-decade forward-looking plan – championed by the current Prime Minister – that covers both deployment and upstream full value-chain manufacturing. No other country comes remotely close to this, with the exception of China (that is barely open for business when it comes to inward investment).

What India wants is a massive challenge

India wants to have a solar manufacturing sector that has the technology-brand of Japan or South Korea, the processing capability of Taiwan, the cost structure of China and the inward-investment lure of Malaysia. And to top it off, the final product performance and quality will allow leading producers to access both domestic needs and export opportunities.

As aspirational as it may sound, if you don’t have those ambitions from the start, you are almost certain to fail. The issue with India though is that we are a long way away from this, when we look at the country’s manufacturing sector today and the ongoing tumultuous relationship it has with its downstream suppliers.

During the past couple of decades, there have been many plans tabled to unleash a multi-GW eco-system value-chain of PV manufacturing. Almost all of these were lauded by eager publicity-seeking activists, but many began and finished at the ceremonial MOU phase, never to be heard of again. Those were the days of polysilicon plants being built or thin-film factories piggybacking on the country’s displays-oriented ambitions.

What finally did emerge in the early days of India solar (that remains until today) can be seen, for example, at Greater Noida (Indosolar) and Hyderabad (then-named Solar Semiconductor), in what were the first purpose-built ‘modern’ cell fabs in the country. In fact, during an early trip to India almost 10 years ago, I remember vividly the pride that India has entered the fab-era.

The start-stop production characteristics of these early entrants, in addition to the never-ending existence of various state-owned loss-making solar business units, seems a long way off, given what has happened in the past few years that starts to paint a picture of what this India-solar paradise may look like if the different stakeholders can make it work.

Government driven upstream and downstream finance

The launch of the National Solar Mission within India changed everything. It put to an end to the notion that pure-play cell production could compete as an export industry. It created a multi-GW end-market that caught the attention of the world. It was inherited by a Prime Minister (Modi) that has no equal anywhere else in the world when it comes to an inherent love of solar and an understanding of how it can transform India as a global leader in a post-fossil-fuel world.

The long-term commitments by Modi for deployment of solar within India serve as the most risk-averse guilt-edged market driver that could be imaginable. Yes, there is downside that accompanies this rapid growth in India, and I will touch on this later in the article. But, either way, any other domestic solar segment globally would readily have this problem in exchange for a constant pipeline of opportunities.

During the past few years, the concurrent upstream drive has come from a succession of attempts to restart domestic cell and module production, through safeguarding, domestic-content carve-outs and the latest Solar Energy Corporation of India’s (SECI) tendering for 3GW of manufacturing linked with deployment guarantees.

Running alongside these policy-driven initiatives, there is of course Adani, and the Mundra-chapter in India-PV, where the multi-sector, multi-national, multi-billion-turnover conglomerate sought to self-fund a micro-solar eco-system at the GW-level.

As of now, none of these efforts has succeeded, and in almost every case (and of course with hindsight) one can easily point the finger at naïve-ambition or a general lack of awareness of technical and commercial factors that underpin the global solar manufacturing sector today.

However, what these efforts reveal is intention, or perhaps a crash-course in PV manufacturing learning that should serve to get it right going forward.

Getting it right

If there was a simple domestic recipe to scale up multi-GW solar manufacturing, spanning ingot/wafer and cell/module production with profitability, there would be PV fabs all around the world, and trade-related barriers would never be heard of. Similarly, if there was a means of curbing global China-export domination, the world would look radically different today.

As such, there is no slight on any of the proponent’s motives, nor should one take apart the flawed assumptions that ultimately led to non-success.

Regardless of the 25GW of solar deployed today within India, and the failure of the previous domestic manufacturing efforts, one should still see India at the start of a journey, perhaps even just finishing its formation lap.

The long-term goal remains intact: being a global PV manufacturing powerhouse, driving domestic demand and having an export-market for any surplus. And critically, there remains the promise of finance through direct government budgeting and inward-investment vehicles including overseas government agreements and energy/infrastructure investment vehicles.

In this respect, there is almost an inevitability that multi-GW PV factories will emerge within India over the next 5 years, but the fundamental question remains: can they get it right?

Finding a route where everyone benefits has to be the solution

Understanding what has to happen in the short-term is inextricably linked to what a successful outcome looks like; and working back to what steps need to happen to fulfil this.

The successful outcome sees many parties benefiting in different ways, but most seeing this through short-term profitability, healthy returns-on-investments or market-favourable asset-values. Other stakeholders – in particular the Indian government and overseas countries that have intrinsic connections – benefit directly and indirectly in terms of global leadership and secondary diplomatic positioning in a renewables-dominated climate.

However, it would appear today that the ingredients for success boil down to a few key issues that need to be resolved:

• What stages in the value-chain (for c-Si manufacturing) are of value for Make-in-India? Is it necessary to install ingot pulling capacity or should the focus be firmly on cell production, with matched module assembly capacity?

• Which technologies need to be selected today for manufacturing investments that – by the time the facilities are operational – are state-of-the-art in terms of cell efficiencies and panel performance?
 How do GW-scale factories get completed in Chinese-based timelines of 3-6 months, and retain the flexibility in adopting any technology-adoption cycles that may impact the industry going forward?
 What is needed to manufacture with profitability? Is the model based purely on buying wafers from China and hammering down in-house costs on a quarterly basis, or is there a supplier/customer model that sees both parties sharing profit margins?
• What is the role of overseas companies, and how can they add value to the Indian sector, and not simply be a strategically-funded platform to expand global reach?
• How can the downstream segment within India (developers/EPC/investors) benefit financially from the increased availability of Indian-made PV modules (using domestic produced cells and possibly even wafers)?
• What policy-driven, government-backed vehicle can make the above questions work in parallel?

These questions are possibly the most pertinent when considering how India moves forward with PV manufacturing, and to get to the bottom of these it is clear that a broad range of stakeholders need to be part of the overall decision-making process: something that has probably not occurred until now.

PV IndiaTech to provide global platform to facilitate India-PV planning

In order to address the questions listed above, it is clear that a forum needs to be created that hears the voices of the different parties that will be needed to fashion a plan that works to everyone’s benefit.

This is the fundamental goal of the PV IndiaTech conference, the first event due to be held in Delhi on 24-25 April 2019.

While there are numerous PV events within India these days – as would be expected from a 10GW-level annual end-market – the role of PV-Tech, as a leading global PV platform and the host of the PV CellTech and PV ModuleTech events, should not be underestimated. India needs global expertise and a connection of its upstream/downstream segments, while having the understanding of which roadmaps are worth aligning with to be industry-competitive going forward; and also welcoming the expertise that exists from the correct overseas technical and financial investors.

We are currently in the process of finishing off the agenda for the forthcoming PV IndiaTech 2019 conference, including key partners, speakers and event contributors. If you would like to feed into this process, or be part of the event in Delhi on 24-25 April 2019, then please reach out to us by email at marketing@solarmedia.co.uk, or drop me a line directly (by clicking on my name at the top of this article) with your ideas and suggestions.

During the build up to PV IndiaTech 2019, PV-Tech will be taking a closer look at many of the issues raised within this article, as well as highlighting the event in Delhi including interviews with all the parties seeking to find a solution to unlocking the potential of Indian PV manufacturing over the next 10-20 years.

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