JA Solar Claims Breakthrough In Solar Cell Efficiency But Still Finds Itself Behind

JA Solar excels in mass-producing low-cost solar cells. It now hopes to improve the quality of its products.

The Chinese manufacturer claimed Thursday that it achieved a breakthrough in its labs: cells with 18.7 percent efficiency at turning sunlight into electricity.

That’s an improvement of a full percent or more over its commercial products today. But it still trails some of the leaders in the business, SunPower’s 22 percent (on its way to 23.4 percent), for instance. And it just matches the 18.5 percent cells Kyocera has in the market.

The announcement underscores the continued tension in the industry between low cost and high efficiency. There are some who believe Western companies still have a technical leg up over China’s producers. But the lure of high volume and low cost is a big driver of demand.

Low cost v. high effiiciency continues to define the battle lines in the solar industry

In the fourth quarter, for instance, JA Solar said sales exceeded what the company was able to manufacturer. As a result, it anticipates increasing production capacity to 1.1 GW of solar cells by the end of the year and expand module assembly to 300 MW.

The company also lifted its sales projections.  “The demand for our products continues to exceed our ability to produce (them),” says CEO Peng Fang. All this while cutting prices and costs, achieved in part by JA Solar’s decision to begin making its own polysilicon wafers.

As to the “breakthrough” technology, the company expects to have large volumes of the mono-crystalline cells available by the end of the year, says Fang.

The dichotomy in the solar industry reminds me of the old Miller Lite commercial where brain dead beer drinkers yell at each other across the bar: great taste, less filling. The solar business is having its own product debate: low cost v. high efficiency. It will be interesting to see who wins.

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