Solarbuzz is reporting that in 2008, solar panel installations increased by 110% over 2007, well ahead of even the most aggressive forecasts. 5.9 gigawatts (peak capacity) of panels were installed, 2.4 gigawatts (41%) of which were installed in Spain and 1.86 gigawatts (32%) in Germany. The US was the third largest market with installations of 0.36 gigawatts (6%). Retail nominal prices for solar panels were steady and the industry appears to have worked out of the shortage in 2007 of polysilicon.
In 2008, thin-film solar panel production -- which does not use polysilicon in its manufacturing process -- increased 123% to 0.89 gigawatts (peak capacity). Many companies are drastically ramping thin-film solar production this year. First Solar -- the leader in thin-film solar -- now has manufacturing capacity of over 1 gigawatt. By my count, Applied Materials' thin film customers alone have announced up to 3/4 gigawatt of new capacity for 2009. Oerlikon's thin film customers are expanding aggressively as well. Lastly, Sharp is opening a very large format (8.7 square meter glass panel) thin film solar plant at the end of this year.
It seems evident that demand this year will not match the rapidly increasing supply, which will result in falling prices and a shakeout in the industry. On Tuesday, Applied Materials announced that a $1.9 billion order from Best Solar in China for thin film solar panel manufacturing equipment was reduced to $250 million. We can expect similar shocking news from others that they too are reducing the amount of capacity that they are planning to add this year.
Unfortunately, the solar panel demand now is driven by subsidies. In 2007, Germany added the most solar generation capacity worldwide, even though the country is not blessed with an advantage in photons. However, German sales have been sustained by very generous subsidies. It is hoped that subsidies will bridge the industry until the ramp of industrial-scale thin film production is well underway. With this ramp, some think that the price of solar panels will decline enough in the next several year such that solar generation competes with other electicity sources without subsidies. It seems possible, but we will have to see how the industry weathers this bubble bursting.