PV module suppliers switch tactics as wafer prices fall 70%

The average price of photovoltaic wafers in the first quarter of 2012 fell by more than 70% due to a global oversupply leading companies to buy in their wafer supply according to the latest research released by IMS Research.


The average price of photovoltaic (PV) wafers in the first quarter of 2012 fell by more than 70% in a year according to the latest research released by IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc. This dramatic price collapse, caused by a global oversupply, has significantly changed the cost structures and strategies of leading PV module suppliers and making many switch from in-house production to buying in their wafer supply. Throughout 2010 and 2011, many suppliers had quickly expanded their in-house wafer capacities. However, as wafer prices have fallen by over $0.70/W to record lows, suppliers are now reducing their in-house manufacturing and purchasing more wafers from third-party suppliers. 

According to IMS Research’s latest quarterly 'PV Modules, Cells, Wafers and Polysilicon - Supply and Demand', average wafer prices fell to $0.30/W in the first quarter of 2012, having stood at just over $1/W one year ago. This rapid decline in prices was driven by severe oversupply and highly competitive market conditions caused by huge capacity expansions that far out-weighed demand growth in 2011. IMS Research’s report reveals that global PV wafer capacity grew by 50% to reach 50 GW by the end of 2011, whilst installation demand grew just 35% to 26.9 GW. The average price of polysilicon, cells and modules also dived throughout 2011, although less severely than wafers, with average prices in the first quarter declining by 48%, 57% and 44% year-on-year respectively.

PV Price Declines, Source: IMS ResearchThis severe price erosion has put huge pressure on the margins of all PV component suppliers and IMS Research found that many PV module suppliers have changed their supply and manufacturing strategies to reflect the dramatically changed pricing landscape in the PV industry. “Intense price pressure and competition throughout the PV industry has forced suppliers to focus on reducing costs to achieve profits more than ever,” commented IMS Research’s Senior Market Analyst Sam Wilkinson. “Large Chinese PV module suppliers in particular had previously aimed to achieve 100% vertical integration in 2010 and 2011 and quickly expanded their in-house wafering capacity. As wafer spot prices have fallen significantly more than polysilicon prices over the last year, most suppliers are finding that they can now purchase wafers at a lower cost than manufacturing them in-house and are reducing their in-house production as a result.”

PV Module Supplier Costs. Source: IMS ResearchBy switching their manufacturing strategies and taking advantage of the low wafer prices that are currently available, many suppliers have been able to improve their cost structure. “IMS Research has found that in the first quarter of 2012, Chinese tier-1 suppliers that purchase wafers, were typically able to improve their cost structure by up to $0.05/W in comparison to purchasing polysilicon and producing them in-house, which is a significant amount in today’s industry climate. With many suppliers renegotiating their polysilicon supply contracts and also improving their polysilicon purchase costs, suppliers will certainly need to remain flexible in their manufacturing operations in 2012,” concluded Wilkinson.

Wafer and polysilicon prices are projected to continue declining in 2012. IMS Research forecasts that by the end of 2012, average wafer will have fallen by 25% compared to the fourth quarter of 2011. Polysilicon prices are forecast to fall faster and will fall by 33% over the same period.

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