The only hope is a differentiated strategy for high efficiency and high reliability!
- Interview with Mr. Jin-seok Choi, CEO, STX Solar
Jin-seok Choi, CEO of STX Solar, is a semi-conductor process expert who has spent years at Samsung Electronics Company. From 1984 when he joined Samsung Electronics to 2001 when he retired from the company, he had his share of contribution for the development of semi-conductor technology of Samsung Electronics. And in 2004, he worked hard for normalization of another semi-conductor company in trouble, Hynix Semi-conductor. Thereafter, Jin-seok Choi spent several years in a college teaching until 2011 when he was asked by STX Solar to guide solar energy research of the company that was suffering from over-supply in the industry. As an expert of semi-conductor manufacturing process appeared in the field of solar energy, industry watchers were not only interested in what he could do to enhance solar-energy conversion but also in enhancing productivity and reducing cost.
Mr. Jin-seok Choi, CEO, STX Solar
While solar energy companies worldwide are struggling to survive in a swamp of debilitating deficit, STX Solar under CEO Choi’s stewardship attracted popular attention for its zero PID and obtaining of Japanese JET technology certification. Not only that, STX Solar also concluded a contract for the construction of a large-scale photovoltaic power generation site in Japan that is emerging recently as the most promising market.
The present project--a joint undertaking of several leading Korean companies in the field of energy such as Korea South-East Power Company as the main undertaker, STX Solar in charge of EPC, and Boo-gook investment in charge of funding--is unique and unprecedented in the sense that Korean technology and capital is advancing to the solar energy field of Japan for the first time.
During the first half of the year, STX Solar is constructing its base at Sendai City in Miyagi County, one of the most devastated cities in the area by the East-Japan Tsunami last year where it builds a large-scale photovoltaic power generation site that is capable of generating 45MW power on 2,739,000 sqm of land. CEO Choi is very active and determined to make the project a great success, saying “This will be our first year to advance to Japanese market. We should prove high efficiency and high reliability of Korea’s photovoltaic energy industry in Japan that is fast emerging as the most promising market.”
Caption: In December 2012, STX Solar signed a business agreement to construct a large-scale photovoltaic power generation site of 45 MW class in Sendai, Japan.
Small like Astro Boy, but Powerful Technology through Differentiation
STX Solar is aiming at approximately USD 130 million of sales target this year, twice the amount of last year. CEO Choi commented enthusiastically, saying “Our goal last year was production of high efficiency and high reliability photovoltaic energy. Our goal this year is ‘Differentiation’. Although small in number, our R&D personnel will be highly productive with a differentiation strategy, to compete with our rivals that have 100~200 research personnel. Our mascot is Atom-the Astro Boy-symbolizing ‘Small but powerful technology’. We will secure during the first half of the year a mass-production capacity of 19 %, 19.8 %, and 20 % efficiency. In the second half, we will increase the mass-production capacity to 20.3 %.”
STX Solar has already acquired a mass-production capacity with 19 % of efficiency or higher by increasing thin aluminum oxide film on the back of photovoltaic cells to several nanometers, a technology that is used to minimize the loss of electric charge which is called ‘PERC high efficiency photovoltaic mass-production technology’.
Together with this high efficiency and high reliability photovoltaic technology in the manufacturing field, CEO Choi is also planning to construct a cyberline that can be used to reduce cost. STX Solar has in Gumi Industrial Complex of Gyeongbuk a manufacturing plant with 180 MW of photovoltaic cells and 50 MW of photovoltaic modules.
On the expansion of this cyber line, CEO Choi said, “Typically, one line corresponds to 60 MW. If production can be increased up to 80 MW, it amounts to adding one more line of 60 MW by the end of the year. Hence, if a cyber FAB is created during the 4th quarter without additional installation, it is possible to increase the total production from 180 MW to 240 MW without a large-scale investment.”
Generally, the reason for making a cyber FAB, a technique used in semi-conductor industry, is to shorten equipment ordering time in order to save time and reduce cost when demand is temporarily increased around the end of the year if a cyber line is prepared in advance. To be sure, there should be technical know-how before a cyber FAB can be made to enhance operation rate up to 98 %, and there should be technological capacity to increase the amount of production per hour from 30 sheets to 40 sheets. Only the companies that possess such superior engineering capability can devise a cyber FAB as the last resort production technique. This amply testifies the superior manufacturing capability of STX Solar.
Caption: Front view of STX Solar Gumi Plant completed in September 2009. STX Solar works hard to attain manufacturing competitiveness in the field of high efficiency and high reliability solar cell mass production with its proven cost competitiveness.
CEO Choi also revealed his expectation of the company’s success, saying “To be sure, this requires high level of engineering capability that is available only to a company that possesses flexibility of production technology. Only engineers who have both flexibility and diligence can make this possible.” He continued, “This year, we will achieve world-class manufacturing competitiveness through securing cost reduction that corresponds to 8~10 % of the total sale. And on the strength of stability and price competitiveness of Korean module quality that is obtained through a successful advancement to Japanese market, we will make a further inroad to the U. S. during the second half of the year. That way, we can expect a surplus even though other countries may record a deficit.”
Last year, STX Solar succeeded in narrowing down generation efficiency PID of the solar modules to zero and thus obtaining the certification of the German Solar Energy Research Institute. PID technology is a state-of-the-art technology that only 5 of the world’s top companies including STX Solar succeeded in obtaining the related certification. CEO Choi is of the opinion that “The companies that possess this PID technology should switch to this highly efficient and reliable technology as early as possible to resolve the imbalance between the demand and the supply.”
As can be seen in this attitude, CEO Choi firmly believes that Korean companies can maintain their competitive edge only when they aim for high efficiency and high reliability products.
Korea and Asian Countries to lead Solar Energy Technology
Regarding the fact that Korean companies are paying much attention to thin-film solar cells, CEO Choi expressed his opinion as follows. “There are two separate markets for crystal substance and thin film. In the case of thin film, cost is the major competitive factor. But in view of this fact, investment cost for equipment is still too high. At present, installing a 100 MW line requires 80~100 billion WON of investment. It is expensive because these lines are still made using the manufacturing technology of LCD equipment. Therefore, it can be said that the thin-film market will be activated when investment cost for equipment becomes appropriate or falls to the half level of what it is required now.”
STX Solar mass-produces the entire line of its solar cells and modules as ‘ANTI PID’ products.
As for the crystal substance, he said, “The crystal substance will maintain the present level for about 3 years, but it will become more competitive in price thereafter.” He continued, “The risk for thin film lies in the fact that the technological barrier is not very high. That is, there is a good possibility that facility investment will dictate its outcome. According to CEO Choi, this is because it is not easy for an early starter to enhance its efficiency in a competition with a late starter that invested less.
He continued, “In the case of semi-conductor memory, we have our own technological barrier, but with the thin film the case is quite different. Accordingly, only a large-size corporation can invest with any degree of assurance since the thin film belongs to the equipment industry that requires large-scale investments. The large corporation already in the field should lower the equipment price while undergoing trial and error and heighten the technological barrier through on-going investments.”
As for the long-term perspective, CEO Choi had this to say, “It is my belief that, in the end, the solar cell technology will be dominated by Asian countries like Korea, Taiwan, and China. If equipment technology and the technologies related to raw materials are well combined, Korea can maintain sufficient competitiveness in this field.”
He added, “In the case of memory technology as well, it took more than 10 years starting with 1983. If efficiency of solar cell manufacturing capability is enhanced to 23 % or 24 % and the number of processes involved increases from 8 to 13 while complexities are added at each stage, the time will come when the quality becomes dependent on the level of engineering capability. And if technological barriers are so erected as a result, the time will come when engineering capability of Korea will take pride in what it has accomplished.”
* Original Article in Korean
(Source: The Feb. issue of Solar Today magazine)