“Faster and more imaginative”02-08-12
The solar industry is in turmoil around the globe. We spoke with Boris Klebensberger, Chief Operating Officer of SolarWorld AG, and Mario Behrendt, Managing Director of SolarWorld subsidiary Deutsche Solar GmbH.
Q-Cells, the former world’s largest solar cell manufacturer, filed for bankruptcy in early April. Is the solar industry in Germany still competitive?
Klebensberger: We’re in the process of separating the wheat from the chaff. It is unfortunate in individual cases, especially since the solar industry was a small circle of idealists and visionaries in the early years. Some of the companies that have been affected had their hands in too many pots and lost sight of the real target. But the German solar industry is by all means competitive. Just because Chinese companies sell at lower prices doesn’t mean that they can produce for less. On the contrary. They would first have to replicate what our production sites in Freiberg and the United States can do.
What makes Germany competitive?
Behrendt: We are faster and more imaginative than our competitors since, after all, competitiveness is defined by more than just price. At SolarWorld we are already focusing on four pillars: the product itself, research and innovation, quality, and service.
Klebensberger:Our experience comes into play as well. SolarWorld has been around since 1999. Our production facilities in Germany and the United States have even more years of experience. In the past, we didn’t go around peddling every little result of our research since we wanted to keep the advantages and knowledge of our own developments in-house as long as possible. Consequently, SolarWorld has been associated too little with innovation until now. That’s going to change. We will be showcasing a few of our own developments that improve module efficiency at Intersolar in Munich.
What role does equipment expertise play in competitiveness?
Behrendt: That we need to secure our machinery expertise over the long term hasn’t just become apparent since many German machinery suppliers have found their most important markets in Asia. We have taken different approaches when it comes to these issues. Our engineering team has developed our own systems and modifications in individual areas. Today we crystallize and saw silicon ingots in such quantities that no one can compete with our knowledge. We owe this exclusively to our engineering team. I am certain that our expertise is what sets us apart from other manufacturers. We purchased standard machinery and optimized and modified it for our own production processes. In this way, the knowledge doesn’t flow back to the equipment manufacturer. We have pursued this strategy throughout all stages of production.
How do manufacturing costs differ from competitors’ costs?
Behrendt: Raw material, material, and media costs will always be lower in Asia simply due to the high subsidies. The same goes for wage costs. But with wages accounting for less than ten percent of our costs, we are more than competitive. Production across all stages is fully automated, which sets us apart from most of our competition. Whereas Asian production facilities need nearly 100 employees, we often need less than a tenth as many for our production. This is also reflected in the number of employees per megawatt. Moreover, we work with highly qualified employees and according to clearly defined environmental and social standards.
Some experts claim that in the future, only research will be conducted in Germany and Europe, and production will take place in Asia.
Klebensberger: One argument against this is that there would no longer be any reason to keep research in Europe over the long run. If production moves, research will follow. Research and production must take place at the same site to achieve the greatest possible synergies. This is the only way to test in real-time whether research results can be implemented in mass production.
Behrendt: I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know of a single industry segment in which we are the front-runners on a global scale and in which only research is conducted in Germany while production takes place abroad. If no production took place in Europe, this would also affect the supplier industry.
Are there differences between German and other manufacturers in terms of quality and customer service?
Klebensberger: Purchasing a solar power plant requires considerable consultation. We’re at an advantage due to our close proximity to customers and a well-established network of trade partners.
Behrendt: There’s a good reason why the “Made in Germany” label carries such weight.
How can customers recognize quality?
Klebensberger: A solar power module that must last 25 years or longer isn’t a cell phone that I can replace after two years. On the outside, solar modules look quite similar. Unlike other competitors, we can guarantee quality across all stages of the value-added chain. Our material tests go far beyond the standards required by TÜV.
Read the full interview at http://www.solarworld.de/en/press/news/