The future is sunny

The solar industry in Germany is competitive, but it needs support if it is to succeed on global markets. In this interview with Jochen Fritsche, plant manager at Meyer Burger in Bitterfeld-Wolfen, he discusses Saxony-Anhalt as a business region, the competition from Asia and sustainable production processes.


The Swiss company Meyer Burger began life as a supplier to the watch industry. It then started developing machines for the solar industry and finally moved to producing solar cells and solar modules itself. The company employs around 1,500 people and 400 of them work in the Bitterfeld-Wolfen plant. In the district of Thalheim, Meyer Burger manufactures up to 1 million half-cells. From there, they are transported to Freiberg in Saxony where the modules are assembled.


Meyer Burger is planning a significant expansion of its site in Bitterfeld-Wolfen. What is the current status of the project?

Jochen Fritsche: We are currently producing solar cells with a capacity of 1.4 gigawatts at our site and we are very keen to expand our production facilities here if the political conditions are right. We have already acquired the buildings and the land we will need. The EU has awarded us a grant to expand our production sites and this will allow us to speed up the expansion of the Thalheim plant. For strategic reasons, we have shifted the next stage in our expansion process to Colorado in the USA. We are building a solar cell factory there to meet the significant demand on the North American market.


The solar industry is developing at breathtaking speed. What is your current view of the global market?

Jochen Fritsche: At the moment the market is hugely distorted as a result of a number of factors. One of these is that large stockpiles of solar modules have built up because the USA no longer allows Chinese products unrestricted access to the country. This is due to the fact that the origins of the products and the production conditions are not traceable. Another factor, it must be said, is China’s industrial strategy. The Chinese state is providing massive subsidies to the solar industry, which means that manufacturers of solar modules can sell their products on the world market at below the cost of production. We do not want to ban Chinese modules from our market or impose punitive tariffs. What we in Europe need is traceable criteria for the manufacturing conditions so that the modules can be sold here. In addition, the solar industry in Germany and the rest of Europe needs support along its entire production chain. This is the only way that we can avoid dependencies and allow for fair competition in this growth area.


How competitive is Meyer Burger in comparison with Asian manufacturers?

Jochen Fritsche: Our manufacturing process is fully automated, which means that we need relatively few employees for the mass production of solar modules. As a result, labor costs are not the decisive factor for us. Our material costs are comparable, because the bottom line is that we use the same materials as other producers. In addition, our energy costs do not put us at a competitive disadvantage, because our technology does not need high temperatures of 800 to 1,000 degrees Celsius. The maximum temperature in our process is 200 degrees. Ultimately our energy costs represent less than ten percent of our total production costs and therefore they do not play a significant role. Our technology is based on a four-stage process. Asian manufacturers often have ten or more stages. We make very efficient use of our production facilities and can now produce many more products in the same floor area than was possible with the previous technology. To sum up, this means that our products are fully competitive.


The solar industry is undergoing a phase of highly dynamic growth. What approach does Meyer Burger take to research and development?

Jochen Fritsche: Our research and development department employs 175 people, which means that it plays a central role in the business. Meyer Burger’s background is in mechanical engineering and so tinkering, trialing and experimenting are part of our corporate DNA. The fact that we develop and build our own production lines gives us a major advantage over our competitors. For us, technology leadership also means planning for the end-of-life phase when we manufacture our products. This is why the subject of recycling is important to us.


The solar industry has been based in the Bitterfeld-Wolfen region for more than 20 years. You have experienced the development of the industry in several companies. How do you see Saxony-Anhalt as a solar location?

Jochen Fritsche: I have been working in Solar Valley since 2004 and have seen the highs and lows of the solar industry. Over the years, the conditions have changed. We are currently in the middle of an energy transition and solar power is by far the most profitable form of energy generation. This was not the case ten years ago, when the technology existed, but no one thought it was essential to keep production here at any cost. As a result of various global crises, the German government has taken a new direction, together with German society as a whole, with the aim of reducing Germany’s massive dependency on other countries for its energy supply.
During this period, Bitterfeld-Wolfen has remained an attractive location because it has a good infrastructure, a supply of skilled workers and experience of industrial companies moving to the area. The businesses that come here receive support and have the opportunity to grow. The local people are also open to new technologies, because the chemical industry is located here and the residents are familiar with it. The town and its chemical park have a forward-looking, symbiotic relationship.
In the field of industrial research, we also work closely with the institutes and educational establishments in the region, including the Fraunhofer Center for Silicon Photovoltaics in Halle (Saale) and Anhalt and Merseburg Universities of Applied Sciences.


Author: Friedemann Kahl


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