Prices for Photovoltaic Raw Materials to Drop in 2009

Pricing for polysilicon used to create Photovoltaic (PV) cells is expected to drop in 2009 and the following years due to fundamental imbalances in the solar supply chain, according to iSuppli Corp. Global supply of polysilicon is expected to double in 2009, while demand will grow by only 34 percent. Although demand for polysilicon will still exceed supply in aggregate in 2009, the sharp increase in supply will cause polysilicon pricing to begin a precipitous plunge in 2009 after peaking this year.

Due to strong solar-driven demand that arose in 2005, suppliers of silicon and wafers have been able to dictate pricing and contract terms to customers during the past three years. This situation hit a crescendo in 2008, with spot market prices for polysilicon rising as high as $500 per kilogram, up from as low as $200 in 2007. The corresponding wafer price rose to $13 per piece and higher in 2008.

However, the average spot market price for polysilicon is expected to decline dramatically during the course of 2009, falling to as little as $200 per kilogram.

With new competitors entering the polysilicon market, supply will outstrip even aggregate demand starting in the beginning of 2010, causing prices to fall further. Spot market pricing is expected to decline to as low as $100 per kilogram in 2010.

“The dramatic variance in the ramp-up rates of the polysilicon suppliers and their PV-cell customers will lead to major supply-chain imbalances,” said Henning Wicht, PhD, senior director and principal analyst, photovoltaics, for iSuppli.

In 2007, more than 90 percent of polysilicon was supplied by only seven companies: Hemlock, Wacker, REC, Tokuyama, MEMC, Mitsubishi and Sumitomo. However, more than 60 other companies have announced plans to produce polysilicon by 2009, resulting in many supply and demand imbalances at the company-to-supplier level.

“The PV supply chain is immature and inflexible, which will result in significant supply chain instability and waste,” Wicht said. “iSuppli estimates that more than 90 percent of the existing PV supply chain is characterized by fixed supply agreements that are incapable of adjusting to actual changes in end-demand.

Supply and demand will not be able to maintain balance at the various nodes in the supply chain for any length of time, resulting in substantial swings in inventory and pricing over the next two years, at which point polysilicon supply will exceed demand so much that all contracts and sales channels will need to be redefined.”

Mounting supply-chain problems come at a time when the market is undergoing rapid growth. Wafer-based solar cell operational production capacity will increase from 6.2 Gigawatts (GW) in 2007 to 17.8 GW in 2010 and 27.5 GW in 2012, iSuppli predicts. However, polysilicon production will rise even faster, with production equivalent to 5.7 GW in 2008, to 19.4 GW in 2010 and to 37.6 GW in 2012.

The decline in pricing and expected oversupply of polysilicon will benefit PV wafer makers that buy the raw material. However, the pure solar wafer market will become a less attractive business in the future.

“The pure wafer business is a siren’s call,” Wicht observed. “The wafer business today is driven by profitability that results from the disposing of scarce supplies of polysilicon. In reality, producing a wafer is not technically beyond the capability of either the polysilicon suppliers or the cell producer. Eventually, then, both polysilicon and cell producers will try to drain all the profit out of this level of the supply chain.”

The solar wafer segment will undergo consolidation sometime after 2012 after polysilicon prices collapse completely, iSuppli predicts.

To learn more about this topic, read Wicht’s latest report, entitled: Immature Photovoltaic Supply Chain to Result in Major Polysilicon Price Volatility.

About iSuppli Corporation
iSuppli Corporation is the global leader in technology value chain research and advisory services. iSuppli provides market intelligence services for the EMS, OEM and supplier communities in addition to servicing consumer electronics and media concerns. Services afforded by iSuppli range from electronic component research to device-specific application market forecasts, from teardown analysis to consumer electronics and from display device and systems research to multimedia content and services.