In 2011, the solar industry saw global oversupply drive PV prices to record lows, with crystalline silicon (c-Si) module prices falling from $1.80 per watt at the start of 2011 to $0.90 per watt by year’s end.
High purity silicon (polysilicon), the key feedstock for c-Si modules, played only a minor role in this price collapse, as over 80 percent of polysilicon is sold via long-term contracts, and the pricing on these contracts moved little for most of 2011. However, oversupply in the polysilicon market pushed the spot price of silicon down from $80 per kilogram in late March 2011 to under $30 per kilogram in December, representing more than a 60 percent drop. This substantially lower spot price gave silicon customers (i.e., wafer manufacturers) the leverage to renegotiate contract pricing downward, and this will result in much lower realized silicon average selling prices (ASPs) in 2012.
Lower silicon prices in 2012 will likely lead to even lower c-Si module prices. Without any other improvements, a $30-per-kilogram drop in silicon price would save module manufacturers approximately $0.20 per watt, which could bring module prices below $0.70 per watt.
For most of the past decade, polysilicon manufacturing was a near oligopoly, and growth in solar-end market demand allowed the incumbents to earn healthy and consistent EBITDA margins greater than 40 percent. In 2008, a shortage of polysilicon pushed prices to outrageously high levels (greater than $400 per kilogram in the spot market), and with those high prices came eye-popping 70 percent margins that enticed existing players as well as new entrants to embark on plant construction/expansion plans. These massive new plants and expansions made their presence felt in 2011, with a supply/demand imbalance pushing silicon prices to record-low levels, below even the cash costs of many manufacturers.
While spot pricing has collapsed and contract pricing is expected to follow, the cost of production has changed little, which implies substantial margin contraction in the coming years. With spot prices below $30 per kilogram, the scores of smaller, higher-cost producers face bleak options: continue to operate at a loss, hoping that pricing will recover before their cash runs out, or moth-ball the plant and live to fight another day. While oversupply will push many companies to shutter plants and lay off employees, other low-cost players will thrive and expand their share of the market.
“In 2011, in the polysilicon industry — and the solar supply chain in general — manufacturing outpaced end-use,” said GTM Research Senior Analyst, Brett Prior. “After a half-decade of silicon demand outstripping supply, the aggressive expansion plans finally overshot. This supply/demand imbalance will push producers to lower contract prices closer to the level of manufacturing costs at $20 per kilogram, and will force higher-cost manufacturers to exit the industry. While the solar market will continue to grow at a 10 percent to 20 percent pace in the coming years, reductions in the amount of silicon used in each module means that end demand for polysilicon will grow at a slower pace. The end result is that the current roster of over 170 polysilicon manufacturers and startups will likely be winnowed down to a dozen survivors by the end of decade.”
GTM Research expects to see established players such as GCL Solar, REC, OCI, Tokuyama, Hemlock and Wacker weather this extended period of pricing weakness, thanks to strong balance sheets, superior technology, and some of the lowest manufacturing costs due to economies of scale. These industry leaders will likely be able to continue charging premium prices, as reliability and certainty of supply will become more of an issue for their smaller competitors.
Press release by GTM Research wich publishes the Polysilicon 2012-2016: Supply, Demand & Implications for the Global PV Industry report, a comprehensive analysis on global polysilicon markets, including the technologies, business strategies and economic roadmap for the industry. The report is available here.