Q&A with Tuukka Savisalo (Valoe), Julius Denafas (SoliTek R&D) and Povilas Lukinskas (Valoe Cells)
In this joint interview we discuss with Tuukka Savisalo (CTO at Valoe Oyj), Julius Denafas (CEO of SoliTek R&D and COO of Valoe Cells), and Povilas Lukinskas (responsible for R&D activities and IBC solar cell technology implementation at Valoe Cells) on their respective roles in the HighLite project. We also cover important topics such as the recent split of the SoliTek manufacturing activities, how to differentiate products in a competitive PV market, and the possible developments for PV in Europe in the coming years.
Tuukka Savisalo, CTO and responsible for R&D Projects at Valoe. Tuukka has a strong background in material science with a MSc. from Helsinki University of Technology, Finland (Material Science) and PhD from Sheffield Hallam University, UK (Materials Research Institute). He has worked in various executive positions in the manufacturing industry in the US, Mexico and Hungary before joining Valoe in 2011.
Julius Denafas, CEO of Soli Tek R&D and COO of Valoe Cells. He is involved in industrial production and research of high efficiency c-Si solar cells. His previous experience includes Design for Manufacturability of micro mechanical components. Julius holds a Master’s degree in Materials and Manufacturing Engineering from the Technical University of Denmark. He was a visiting researcher at Teknologisk Institut (Denmark) and held an internship at Fraunhofer ISE (Germany) in the field of characterization and development of high efficiency c-Si solar cells. Currently he is mainly responsible for the management of R&D activities in the renewable energy sector and industrial production of IBC solar cells.
Povilas Lukinskas holds a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently employed as process manager at Valoe Cells. Relatively new in the field of photovoltaics (3 years) he has over 20 years of experience working in industry and research institutes. He is the author of 19 scientific publications. Currently he is mainly responsible for R&D activities and IBC solar cell technology implementation at Valoe Cells.
Question 1: SoliTek recently announced a split of its cell and module manufacturing facilities. Can you explain the reasoning behind this and the role of Valoe in this transaction?
Savisalo (Valoe) : Using purchased cells has been identified as a big problem in back contact technology as the low production volumes lead to uncompetitive pricing and often second rate products and services. In the business of custom solar modules and integrated solar, control of the supply chain in terms of quality and product variation is key to business. This is very difficult to secure without your own cell production. The opportunity to combine Solitek infrastructure and Megacell/ISC-Konstanz groundwork for Zebra IBC was an opportunity we could not miss.
Denafas (Solitek / Valoe Cells): The main reason for this transformation to my opinion was that an old technology (mc-Si Al-BSF) became not reasonable to manufacture in Europe from an economical point of view. An investment into new technology and capacity expansion was an obvious solution to this problem.
Everything started when Solitek R&D and Valoe became involved in commercial activities (Solitek manufactured mc-Si MWT cells for Valoe). This was a first step in a transition from standard H-pattern to back contact cells. It turned out later that Valoe already had plans to manufacture their own cells. Their acquisition of the Solitek cell line and its upgrade to IBC was a very logical next step for both companies.
Lukinskas (Valoe Cells): I agree with Julius. Competing against Asian mega companies is nearly impossible for a small manufacturer like Valoe Cells. Hence switching towards premium class innovative products, both at cell and module level, is probably the only way to go. Solitek, as a company, chose to strengthen its leading positions as glass-glass solar module manufacturer in Northern Europe. Therefore, the next logical step was to team up Solitek’s cell production business with Valoe’s state-of-the-art module manufacturing. I believe this joint project should have a very bright future.
Question 2: How do you differentiate your products in the competitive PV market?
Savisalo (Valoe): Valoe has been developing back contact technology, both in modules, special components and in automation since 2013. This provides Valoe tools to enable completely new kind of products that are flexible in product design, production and in the product itself. With IBC and back contact technologies, Valoe can offer its customers the entire production chain from the invention to a finished industrial PV product. Integrated PV modules usually need customized production line and tailored materials. Valoe has designed and manufactured its own production lines and knows the requirements of the different production technologies. If Valoe is your R&D partner, it can test the production processes in its own factories. Then, it is also ready to offer the manufacturing technology of the customized product. Valoe can even run the production for a limited or infinite time to ensure a smooth availability of the customer´s PV products.
Denafas (Solitek / Valoe Cells): Solitek is focusing on long term reliability, bifaciality and integration with their glass/glass solar modules. Sustainability in the manufacturing processes of PV products has recently became a very important aspect for our clients and for Solitek. Therefore, receiving a silver cradle-to-cradle (C2C) certification was one of the major milestones for our company in 2020. This achievement definitely helps to differentiate in specific markets and compete with cheaper alternatives.
Lukinskas (Valoe Cells): Participation in European projects together with the leading research institutes is invaluable for Valoe Cells. Keeping pace with innovations and implementing them into our manufacturing process is crucial in today’s competitive market. IBC technology has become economically viable in the last couple of years and we can see more and more companies adopting it. The development of improved IBC cell technology is something that should set us apart and that would not be possible without financial incentives from the EU.
Question 3: What are the major objectives for Valoe, Solitek, and Valoe Cells in the H2020 HighLite project?
Savisalo (Valoe) : Our first goal is to bring to market electricity-generating facade solutions that can be integrated into buildings and other applications like vehicles. In HighLite we are testing different colors, shapes for modules, fixing systems and we develop production automation suitable for them. Another essential goal of the HighLite project is to produce environmentally friendly solar panels. Absolute requirements are non-toxicity, recyclability and a low CO2 footprint. Almost all traditional Far Eastern panels contain lead solders and the energy often used in manufacturing is produced with coal. Non-toxicity and low CO2 emissions will be competitive advantages for PV manufacturing in Europe. Collaborative research with leading institutes is a very important to Valoe. It provides us with a vast network of experts we can easily consult when we face new challenges and strange requirements as we often do in the field of custom integrated PV.
Denafas (Solitek / Valoe Cells): There are several goals. One is maybe quite general, but very important. Participation in such projects allows our small company to gain access to the invaluable resource of knowledge available at major European solar energy research centres like imec, ISC Konstanz, Fraunhofer ISE and CEA-INES among others. No doubt that we increase our competence being in the same team with people from such organizations. We are happy to offer our industrial facilities for testing and commercializing new process technologies for solar cells and modules.
Another, very obvious goal for us is related to the HighLite WP3 activities which SoliTek is leading, where the main focus is to improve the performance of IBC and HJT cells. We, together with project partners, want to achieve this goal by implementing a contact passivation process in IBC cells to boost efficiency towards 24+%.
Lukinskas (Valoe Cells): The main goal for us is to improve our baseline Zebra IBC process. The passivated contacts technology is no longer just an exotic concept, but it is coming to industry very rapidly. The ability to produce 24% and higher efficiency IBC cells will help us to be competitive in certain premium class segments in Europe.
Another very important goal is to present ourselves, as an industrial company, to the partners of the project. Partnership between research institutes and PV industry in Europe is beneficial to both parties and is vital for keeping the PV industry here in Europe. So, we expect that successful participation in the HighLite project will pave the way for future collaborations.
Question 4: How do you see the developments of PV in Europe in the coming years?
Savisalo (Valoe) : We can see a very strong growth for product integrated PV. PV is now very affordable and the storage and control electronics are also getting to a mature stage. Combined with electrification, we can see a huge market for this in Europe and even more globally.
To safeguard Europe’s security of energy supply and ensure energy self-sufficiency Europe should not give manufacturing of this vital technology to China and other far east Asian countries. We would like to see PV manufacturing defined as a vital industry, in a similar manner as other key energy infrastructure, that should have access to similar level of public financing/subsidies as the industry in China.
Denafas (Valoe Cells/Solitek): We expect that the Energy transition which is happening right now in Europe and in the rest of the world will bring back an opportunity to have large scale manufacturing in Europe again. Funded projects like Highlite show that Europe still is and will remain very strong in the development of new technologies. Therefore, we hope that the European Commission will show a strong support through various funding mechanisms so that these innovations can be successfully commercialized at a large scale to support the energy transition and create thousands of jobs in Europe.
Solitek, together with Valoe Cells, Valoe Oyj and ISC-Konstanz, is a part of the solar manufacturing accelerator program with an initiative named “5GW+ Green Fab”. It seems that this initiative has a very good potential to bring large scale manufacturing of PV back to Europe and we definitely want to take part in it with our products.
Taking into account a Green Deal initiative, I think there is more than enough room for various technologies to be manufactured in Europe like PERC, HJT, IBC and tandem in the future as well. Each of them has their advantages and disadvantages, but all can be used successfully in different cases. European players can definitely take a chance and focus not only on large utility-scale ground mounted PV plants, but also on higher added value segments like Building-Applied PV (BAPV), Building-Integrated PV (BIPV), and Vehicle-Integrated PV (VIPV). This is where the Highlite project is strongly focusing its efforts as demand for distributed PV applications is expected to grow particularly in densely populated areas like Europe.
The future of the PV sector in Europe is bright. Europe, with the election of Ursula von der Leyen as the President of the European Commission, has put the EU climate policy as one of the fundamental directions for the EU to follow in the future. The PV industry, together with other green energy technologies, should experience a major boost in investments in the next decade. Although utility-scale PV projects should still dominate in volume, I expect a major rise in residential and highly-specialized PV installations. Overall, the fraction of projects involving BAPV, BIPV, VIPV, Agricultural photovoltaics (Agri-PV) and other integrated PV applications should grow fast every year.